Ferrebeekeeper is always chasing down where domesticated plants and animals originally came from. Bananas are from Malaysia and New Guinea. Quinces are from the Near East. Goats are from Crete and Iran. Turkeys seem to have come from Mesoamerica. Pigs are from Eurasia (sometimes these sites are somewhat less than specific). All of this leads to the question of what came from here? Are there any domesticated animals from eastern North America? Are there any domesticated plants that didn’t come from Eurasia or Africa or some tropical wonderland? It is autumn and the answer is right outside. All domesticated sunflowers everywhere descend from a variety originally native to the woodlands in the central east of North America. Some of the earliest archaeological finds of domesticated sunflowers come from 3000 to 3500 year old sites in Illinois, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Of course answers as to what happened thousands of years ago in societies which did not leave written records are always open to debate and to new findings—so a subset of archaeologists think that sunflowers too were first domesticated in the great temple societies of Mesoamerica. But until they come up with truly conclusive evidence let’s say the useful yellow plants are from Arkansas.
Sunflowers are a genus (Helianthus) of approximately 70 species of tall aster flowers (asters are a family of flowering plants which include cornflowers, periwinkles, cosmos, and lots and lots of other flowers which I have not written about). Domesticated sunflowers (H. annus) are annuals which grow to 3 meters (9.8 ft) tall in a growing season. According to my sources, the tallest sunflower on record somehow grew to a height of 9 meters (30 feet), which I find implausible (though I would dearly like to see such a thing). Sunflowers spend their energy on growing a full head of large oily seeds. The head of a sunflower is a complex and botanically interesting combination of different sorts of flowers growing together. The “petals” are produced by sexually sterile flowers which fuse their petals into an asymmetrical ray flower. A whole ring of these peculiar flowers surround the inner head, where individual disk flowers are oriented in mathematically complex relations to each other (seriously, try drawing the head of a sunflower and you will soon appreciate the peculiar juxtaposition of simplicity and complexity going on in the form).
Sunflowers were first imported to Europe in the 16th century. They have become commercially important in the modern world largely because of their inexpensive high-quality oil (although the seeds are roasted, milled, baked, and otherwise made into every sort of foodstuff you could think of). Young sunflowers do track the sun across the sky during the day, but they swiftly lose this ability as their buds open.
The sunflower has garnered a vast variety of spiritual, aesthetic, and cultural meanings as it moved around the world and became one of humankind’s favorite crops. However nearly every culture is inclined to associate it with joy, beauty, abundance, and the sun. They are wonderful plants.