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What is a Sunflower?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The sunflower, or Helianthus annuus, is an annual flower that is famous for its extremely large and vividly yellow blooms. These plants are native to North America, but they are widely cultivated all over the world today as ornamentals, food plants and for their valuable oil. Many people enjoy growing the flowers, because they are quite easy to cultivate and are a great way to brighten even a small garden.

Origin and History

It is estimated that the sunflower was domesticated around 1000 BCE in North America, presumably for the purpose of using the oil-rich and highly nutritious seeds. They were also used as a source of purple and black dyes. When European explorers were introduced to the plant, they brought it home with them and cultivation in Europe dates to around the 1600s. By the late 19th century, they were being grown extensively in Russia for their oil, but also in many other parts of Europe. France, in particular, has become famous for its sunflowers, perhaps because of Van Gogh's lush paintings of fields in bloom.


A domesticated sunflower can grow to over six feet (two meters) in height, producing one or many composite blooms, known as heads, on a coarse stem with rough, hairy leaves. The “flower” is actually composed of hundreds of tiny florets packed together; only the outermost ones have long petals. When the head is fertilized, the florets on the inside of the head develop into seeds, while the petals along the sides wither and fall off. In addition to the classic yellow, these petals can be white, orange or maroon in color and the seeds may develop in white, black or striped forms.

The most well known trait of the sunflower is probably its heliotropism. The flowers buds turn to face the sun, but, contrary to common belief, the mature heads do not. The buds face east in the morning and slowly track the sun across the sky. After dark, the heads reorient themselves to face the east again. This tendency is more pronounced in domesticated forms. It is thought that the shaded sides of these fast-growing plants grow more quickly, causing the turning motion through the course of a day.

The plant has a long root system, penetrating down to over six feet (two meters) if conditions are right. This can enable it to exploit sources of water relatively deep in the ground. For this reason, it can often tolerate dry spells, but it is not classed as drought-resistant.


Growing sunflowers is easy in most parts of the world and in some areas the flowers can actually turn into weeds if allowed to grow unchecked. They thrive in USDA zones 3 through 10. The plants will survive frost, but may be damaged and will die if subjected to severe cold. They grow best at 70-78°F (21-25.5°C), but will tolerate a much wider range.

Sunflowers are annual plants that die shortly after setting seed, so they can be grown anywhere where summer temperatures remain above freezing. They are normally propagated by the seeds, which germinate best at 46-50°F (7.7-10°C). Seeds should be planted between 1 and 3.5 inches deep. The plants are fairly unfussy about soil types, but good drainage is advised.


Due to their large size and attractive flower heads, sunflowers are popular ornamental plants. Their rapid growth and ease of cultivation make them a good choice for children who want to do some gardening. Most garden stores carry an assortment of varieties, for people who want to grow them in exotic colors like maroon and white.

The seeds have a high oil content — 39-49% — and are an important source of food products. The oil is among the most popular for cooking purposes and is used in the production of margarine. It is high in unsaturated fats, which are considered healthy, and, aside from cooking, is used in many ready-made snacks such as potato chips, or crisps. It is famously nutty in flavor and is also considered to be very good for the skin.

Since the seeds are rich in protein and several nutrients, they are a popular snack in many regions of the world, especially when roasted. Sunflower seeds are widely used as food for various pets, especially birds and some rodents, such as gerbils. They are also sold as food for wild birds, to be placed in garden bird feeders.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By madeleine22 — On May 20, 2014

PS I found this guide this guide useful as it deals with organic sunflower growing for beginners.

By madeleine22 — On May 20, 2014

Thanks to letshearit for the tip, The dwarf sunflower is much easier to grow and take care of. I'm trying with a bunch of new ones this summer.

By letshearit — On Jun 18, 2011

If you have a smaller garden you can try your hand at growing dwarf sunflowers. These are gorgeous flowers that look exactly like their larger cousins, but stay between one and two feet tall.

A good idea for mini sunflowers is to grow them inside first, then transplant them to your garden when they are high enough. This variety of sunflowers is perfect for potting and is simple to care for.

After you prepare a pot with rich soil, just plant the seeds under a half-inch of soil, about three to four inches away from each other. Just water the seeds enough on a regular basis to keep the soil damp and you should see sprouts in no time.

Remember to keep your dwarf sunflowers near the sunshine.

By popcorn — On Jun 15, 2011

My grandmother had absolutely huge sunflowers growing in her garden. They were much taller than me when I was a child and I loved walking under them and pretending I had been shrunk.

One of the best things about having sunflowers in abundance was that she used to harvest them and produce her own sunflower seeds.

As soon as the plant heads had become brown and dry she would head outside and place paper bags over the sunflowers to protect them and then she would wait. Once the backside of the flower turned brown too, she would cut the head off and we'd have lots of seeds. It was really fascinating to watch.

By Malka — On Jun 15, 2011

Did you know there is a sailboat named after sunflowers? It's called the Snark Sunflower, and it's a tiny little sailboat model that can be easily loaded onto the roof of a car to drive to the water.

Snark Sunflower sailboats are about eleven feet long, and really cute. People often dress them up by coloring them yellow, black and white and giving them sails with pictures of actual sunflowers or cartoon icons of sunflowers on them.

Like bumblebees, I think sunflowers are one of those universal symbols of cheerfulness, summery weather and a feeling of innocence. If somebody put sunflowers and bumblebees into a single boat's design the cuteness would be overwhelming!

By hanley79 — On Jun 15, 2011

@sobeit - Are they easy to grow? I want to try sometime.

The Teddy Bear sunflower, judging by pictures I looked up in an online search, looks adorably fluffy! I would like to try growing the big traditional sunflowers, too, but I live in an apartment and don't have six feet to grow a flower in.

Just how small are the Teddy Bears? Could I grow them in a pot? After reading more about sunflowers, I really really want to grow one.

By seHiro — On Jun 15, 2011

@rosequartz - Heliotropism is a cool word, and also a cool trait. I wonder why domesticated sunflowers have a more pronounced form of heliotropism than the wild kind?

I always thought that the name for sunflowers came from the fact that they kind of look like the sun. If you compare them to the common children's drawing style of a sun with rays shining out, a sunflower matches the image nicely.

Anyway, after reading this article and your comment about heliotropism, now I'm thinking maybe the name "sunflower" is referring to the tendency to follow the sun more than anything.

Do other flowers have heliotropism, or just sunflowers? I've heard of flowers growing toward light, but nothing so fast as moving daily to follow the sun rays!

By Hawthorne — On Jun 15, 2011

@rosequartz - I know, right? Maroon and white sunflowers sound awesome!

To me, the impressive size of a traditional sunflower plant is a big part of the appeal. There's something really cool about a flower big enough you can rest your hand in the middle circle of black and your fingers barely touch the petals.

I usually grow a big lineup of beautiful traditional yellow six foot tall sunflower plants each year along the stone fence in front of my house. They're right along the edge of the road, so I don't eat the seeds because the car exhaust makes them taste bad and probably isn't at all healthy.

The sunflowers sure brighten my yard, though, and they're just about effortless to grow. Now that I know about the maroon kind, I wonder if I could buy sunflower seeds for those at my local nursery?

I live in a pretty small town, and I've never seen any maroon sunflowers growing around, but perhaps they would special order the maroon kind for me.

By sobeit — On Jun 15, 2011

Sunflowers are such a great flower to grow in your yard. Not only can you enjoy their beauty, but you can roast and eat the seeds, attract butterflies to your garden and then do it all over again the next year!

This year I tried the Teddy Bear sunflower but prefer the larger, more traditional flowers for their bigger impact in the yard. The Teddy Bears are cute but they look more like little yellow buttons.

By rosequartz — On Jun 15, 2011

Great sunflower information, especially loved the word, "heliotropism" to describe the way sunflowers track the sun.

I grew a batch of sunflowers a few years ago and took a zillion photos of them in all their different poses. I still treasure those photos today.

But I seriously had no idea you could buy them in maroon and white. I'm going out today to the nursery to see if they grow in my local area.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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