The Suitcase Lady


August 27, 2014, 9:02 am

All the marketing people in the world couldn’t do a better job of branding the sunflower than Van Gogh. With brush in hand, he made these humble flowers (and himself) iconic.

Sunflowers are fascinating and often misunderstood plants. The “flower”is tricky. The part that is commonly called the flower is made up of two distinct kinds of florets. Look closely at the sunflower disc to see the tiny disc florets which will form the seeds. The outer ray florets look like yellow petals. Together the two types of florets make up a false flower or inflorescence. This design helps pollinators see the flower and pollinate all the minute central florets. Bees are the main pollinators.

Sunflowers are North American natives that were used by the Indians for food, oil and dye. The wild sunflowers were multi-stemmed with numerous flower heads. Domestication produced the tall, unbranched stalk with a single large head.

Enormous fields of sunflowers are grown for their commercial value. Some varieties produce black seeds which are used for oil and bird food. Birders know that these costly seeds are the ones that attract the greatest number of birds and other wildlife as well. The black seeds have soft outer hulls making the nutritious inner kernels accessible to even tiny beaks. The harder hulled striped seeds are turned into snack foods and a peanut butter substitute called sunbutter. In Germany, the seeds are mixed with rye flour to make a bread with the wonderful name Sonnenblumenkernbrot.

It’s a beloved myth that the flower heads track the sun. The mature flower usually points in a fixed easterly direction. The young buds, however, do display some sun tracking or heliotropism.

Each week we buy fifty pounds of oiled sunflower seeds for our guests at the Tooley Cafe. One spring my husband raked up a wheelbarrow of debris from under the feeders and dumped it over our seventy foot bluff. By August we had an army of sunflower volunteers marching down the cliff and out onto the beach. We have never been able to repeat that serendipitous sunflower happening, but we keep trying.