As we enjoy the final few weeks of summer here in the Vail Valley, let’s take the time to pay homage to what is unequivocally a primary image of the season — the sunflower.
You can probably picture this familiar plant now — a tall stalk topped with a ray of bright yellow petals and a thick cluster of brown bristles centered at its core. The common sunflower, formally classified as Helianthus annuus, not only flourishes in dry to moist conditions, open sites in meadows and alongside roads that weave throughout the Southern Rockies; the sunflower can also be found growing across the world. With its vast range and abundance, this ubiquitous flowering plant claims deep cultural and economic significance at home and abroad.
A FLOWER WITH AN ANCIENT HISTORY
Native to the North American continent, the sunflower played an important role in the everyday life of ancient human inhabitants of the Americas. Archaeological evidence suggests the cultivation of sunflowers started as early as 2300 B.C., meaning that sunflowers might have been domesticated before beans, squash and corn — all of which were major staples of the indigenous diet.
One of the major reasons for the cultivation of sunflowers is the high yield of the nutritious fruits, also known as sunflower seeds. Thus sunflowers were grown in order to provide an abundant and reliable means of subsistence.
Another reason sunflowers gained popularity among our native ancestors is due to the myriad uses for sunflower seed oil, which can be extracted from the seed when crushed. Also, sunflower seed oil was once (and continues to be) a healthy alternative to animal derived oils. Further, sunflower seed oil is used globally for consumption, and European exploration had a lot to do with the omnipresent nature of the plant. Today, sunflower seed oil is one of the largest crops for essential oil in the world.
ONE BIG FLOWER FAMILY
The sunflower, though, not only refers to a single species, but is also the name for an entire family of flowering plants. In fact, one of the largest collections of species of flowering plant is grouped under the sunflower family, also known as the aster or composite family. Local flowers in this family include heart-leaved arnica, smooth fleabane, black-eyed susan, common dandelion, yarrow, and even the infamous creeping thistle, a noxious weed that, in its defense, blooms a beautiful pinkish-purple flower. How do you know if you’re looking at a species of the sunflower family? When playing “He (or she) loves me, he (or she) loves me not” with an oxeye daisy, pluck and take a close look at one of the hundreds of tubular pieces compacted into a disc located at the center of the flower. Sunflowers, or composite flowers, come equipped with “florets,” or tiny individual flowers. The florets are significant because they contain both male (stamen) and lady (pistol) parts. The disc of florets are vital for reproduction especially in regards to attracting bees, butterflies, moths — a few of the pollinators that subsist off of nectar. Let us not forget, humans are not the only species to enjoy the goods and services provided by a local ecosystem.
LEAVE THE FLOWERS BE
With that said, when hiking in the wilderness or taking a leisurely stroll through the park, we should all be mindful of the benefits flower species of all kinds bring to humans and non-humans. This includes not picking wildflowers. Please leave them behind for others to enjoy — whether it be to extract oils, consume seeds, spread pollen or drink nectar.
Courtney Dean is a naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center. Outside of work, she enjoys cycling and also, given her current position, loves devoting time to identifying wildflowers.