Across the world, people are embracing the sunflower, Ukraine’s national flower, to show support for the Ukrainian people. The sunflower is being held as a symbol of resistance against the country’s invasion by Russian forces.
Sunflowers have been grown in Ukraine since the 1700s but by the 20th century they were increasingly cultivated in vast fields for their oil. Sunflower oil became increasingly popular in Ukraine because the Orthodox Church did not restrict its use during Lent. (Orthodox church members were not supposed to cook with butter or lard during Lent). As a result, fields of sunflowers became more widespread, and sunflower seeds became an in-demand snack.
Last year Ukraine was the world’s largest source of sunflower oil, accounting for around a third of global production.
The botanical name for sunflowers is Helianthus – ‘helia’ meaning sun and ‘anthus’ for flower. Some are incredibly tall and make a real statement in the garden, other sunflowers are compact dwarf varieties which are perfect for pots. Some have just a single flower on a stalk and others have several flowers on the one plant.
Growing sunflower plants is easy because they are pest resistant and fast growing, taking on average, between 80 and 120 days to mature and develop seeds.
They can make a gorgeous display in your garden, can be cut to bring inside, or harvested for their seeds.
The showy outer petals help attract honey bees and bumble bees to the centre of the sunflower which houses thousands of tiny individual florets containing nectar and pollen.
It is best to sow sunflower seeds directly into the garden after the danger of frost has passed in a sunny, sheltered spot. Sunflowers are remarkably tough and will grow in any kind of soil as long as it is not waterlogged but adding plenty of well-rotted manure or garden compost before planting is beneficial.
Protect the young plants from slugs and snails, and water sunflowers regularly. They may need to be staked if they are in an exposed position.
Sunflowers can be grown in containers but it is better to choose a low-growing, dwarf variety which will not need support.
The flowering season of sunflowers can be extended by deadheading the flowers which will encourage new flower shoots to grow. If you would prefer to have sunflower seeds for roasting or future planting, do not cut the spent sunflower heads until they are dry and brown.
Hang the flower heads upside down indoors in an area that has good air circulation and is safe from mice and birds. Seeds will be ripe 30 to 45 days later and are a good source of vitamin E, magnesium, selenium, and a number of other nutrients, as well as being beneficial to put outside for hungry birds.
If you live in an urban area or have a problem with contaminated soil, planting sunflowers may be a solution to help detox heavy metals in the soil. Sunflowers are known as phytoremediators, meaning that they can absorb toxic heavy metal contaminants and poisonous chemicals like lead, arsenic, zinc, chromium, cadmium, copper, and manganese in the soil. After the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters, sunflowers helped remove a lot of toxic substances.
There are research studies to show that the plant is able to use both its roots and shoots to absorb different contaminants and help leave the soil healthier. They generally need to be planted en masse when used in this way but even on a smaller scale in an urban backyard, this is a way to get healthier soil.
Sunflower seeds are normally sown in April and May in Ukraine but this year, these bright, optimistic blooms will be a reminder for us of Ukraine and its people. At dawn, a young sunflower looks east, towards the heat of sunrise. As the sun moves from east to west, the flower also turns west. As the sun sets, the flower returns to its original position to the east to begin the cycle the next day. Those that do flower in Ukraine this year will begin every morning facing east, towards their neighbour, Russia.