The story of smiling sunflowers

Karen Wils photo A smiling sunflower.

ESCANABA — Once upon a time, there lived a golden-maned princess. She loved to dance with the September sun in the wilds of North America.

Explorers came around 1500 and captured the princess. They took her far across the ocean and taught her and her daughters to thrive and grow in foreign soil.

After many, many generations, the Russians brought her descendants back to America. More beautiful, bigger and bolder-colored than ever before, the sunflower princess is home to stay.

The big, bright sunflower head bobbing outside my window has an interesting history.

Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I do not recall seeing too many sunflowers growing in gardens around here.

I think the first time I really saw sunflowers was in the late 1970s in Wisconsin on our way to Washington Island to visit my brother. I found something alluring about the yellow beauties swaying in the fields and harvest time.

As the apples ripened and the autumn leaves started to color, the sunflowers bloomed. In the 1980s, a neighboring farmer planted sunflowers. They came from Russian heritage, and so did I. Perhaps we spoke the same language; I knew I had to grow some of my own.

In my little rock garden enclosure at camp, I planted my first sunflowers. I enjoyed their tall rustic charm. A few of the smaller blossoms became centerpieces. After the seeds were ripe, I opened the gate and every other critter loved the sunflowers, too.

The wild sunflower is native to North America. American Indians were growing the flowers along with the three sisters, corn, beans, and squash as early as 3000 B.C., books say.

The Spanish explores took seeds of the sunflowers to Europe around 1500. The plant spread around Europe as a handsome ornamental.

Peter the Great made the sunflower quite popular in Russia in the 18th century. Sunflower oil manufacturing became important to the Russian people. The Russian Orthodox Church forbid eating meats, fats and oils during Lent, but sunflower oil was not prohibited.

The first sunflower seeds to appear in seed catalogs in the U.S.A., were called “Mammoth Russian” sunflowers.

Growing sunflowers commercially for oil didn’t pick up in the United Sates and Canada until the 1930s.

Today, sunflowers come in many sizes and in many colors — yellow, orange, rust, red and brown. There are several types of seeds, one for oil, one for seeds for human consumption, bird food, and ornamentals.

Sunflowers have been planted to extract harmful ingredients from the soil like lead and arsenic. They were planted after the Chernobyl disaster.

Sunflower seeds are great to snack on — just ask any baseball player. Sunflower oil is healthy for you, like olive oil. And what joy a few sunflower seeds can bring to the snowy U.P. to entice birds and other wildlife to feeders.

But the best thing sunflowers can do for people is making them smile!

The golden glow of the sunflower at the end of the summer is such a happy thing. The harvest season is upon us, but lets dance with the tawny princess for a few days before the north winds blow.


Karen (Rose) Wils is a lifelong north Escanaba resident. Her folksy columns appear weekly in Lifestyles.