Sun worshipers: 6 things you didn’t know about sunflowers

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

It wasn’t until I saw fields of sunflowers in the south of France that I ever thought of these yellow flowers as a crop. From mayonnaise to snack food, there’s more to these blossoms than meets the eye.

North American origins

Sunflowers, like blueberries and cranberries, are one of the few crops native to North America. The wild ancestors of most of the world’s food plants, like wheat, corn and potatoes came from the Middle East, Asia or South or Central America.

Wild sunflowers, which were much smaller than those grown commercially today, were first domesticated around 5,000 years ago by the peoples of the south-western United States. The high-protein seeds were valued by some indigenous peoples who used ground seed meal to make bread. The flower hitched a ride across the continent, and was seen by the first European explorers in locations ranging from southern Canada to Mexico.

An oil popularized by Russia

Photo by Amelia. CC.

Photo by Amelia. CC.

Europeans were not especially excited by the sunflower, and it was probably first brought to Europe by the Spanish as a mere curiosity. However, in the 18th century, Russia and the Ukraine adopted the sunflower for its high-quality, sweet oil. At the time sunflower seeds were around 28% oil, but Russian breeding bumped that up to nearly 50%.

These oily sunflower hybrids gained popularity in the U.S. after WWII. In 1986, sunflowers were the third largest source of vegetable oil world-wide after soybean and palm oil. However, these days they only make up only 9% of the world’s veggie oil market. The leading producers of sunflower seeds are Argentina, Russia, Ukraine, France, the U.S. and China.

Sunflower oil is used in salads, cooking oil, margarine and mayonnaise. It is also added to drying oils for paints and varnishes, as well as being used in soaps, cosmetics and bio fuel. Once the oil is pressed out of the seeds, the remaining high-protein meal is used to feed chickens and livestock. This meal can also be a flour substitute in bread and cakes.

Snack time: A mouthful of achenes

Photo by Mark S. “Sunflower Seeds”. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bbKcST

Photo by Mark S. “Sunflower Seeds”. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bbKcST

The sunflower ‘seeds’ sold as snack food are actually fruit. In botany-speak they’re called achenes, a fruit with a hard outer coating. The real seed is the grey ‘meat’ in the centre.

Sunflowers grown for their achenes are different varieties from oil seed sunflowers, which have smaller black seeds. ‘Confectionery’ achenes have thicker hulls and lower oil content, not to mention stylish black and white stripes. They are served salted and roasted, or hulled for use in baking. With 20% protein, the achenes and seeds marketed as healthy snacks, and meat substitutes.

Sun worshipers

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

Many people think that sunflower heads always face the sun (called heliotrophism) but that simply isn’t true. The early flower buds spiral around until they face east like living compasses, but they stop once they bloom. The leaves also follow the sun, which makes sense: they are the ones that need the light for photosynthesis, not the flower.

Manitoba: Canada’s sunflower capital

Photo by William Ismael. “Sunflower Seeds.” CC. https://flic.kr/p/9rqvXr

Photo by William Ismael. “Sunflower Seeds.” CC. https://flic.kr/p/9rqvXr

Canada has grown sunflowers commercially since the 1940s. Over 90% are grown in Manitoba, where 250 million pounds of sunflower seeds are harvested annually. The rest are grown in Saskatchewan.

70% of all Canadian sunflowers are of the confectionery variety, and primarily serve Canadian markets. Some are exported to the U.S., The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and China, which are large consumers of hulled sunflower seeds.

Canada also grows oil seed sunflowers, but because there is no large-scale sunflower crushing facility in Manitoba, the achenes are sent to the U.S. for processing.

Floret power

Photo by Amelia. CC.

Photo by Amelia. CC.

Despite popular belief, sunflower heads are not one flower, but a composite of many tiny flowers called florets.  One sunflower head can contain up of 1,000 to 2,000 florets. The sterile petal-like ray florets draw in the pollinators, but real pollination happens with the black and brown disk florets in the centre. These fertile disk florets are arranged in a spiral, and shed pollen beginning at the edges and moving to the centre. Disk florets very sensitive to frost; any temperature below 0 degrees Celsius will cause rings of sterile florets.

Now there’s something to think about the next time you enjoy a carrot muffin topped with sunflower seeds.

References

Click to access vegetableoilstudyfinaljune18.pdf


http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/helianthus-annuus-sunflower
http://www.britannica.com/plant/sunflower-plant
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/sunflower/
http://www.canadasunflower.com/production/sunflower-agronomy/
http://www.gov.mb.ca/trade/globaltrade/agrifood/commodity/sunflowers.html
http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/industry-markets-and-trade/statistics-and-market-information/by-product-sector/crops/pulses-and-special-crops-canadian-industry/sunflower-seed/?id=1174599801414
https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/afcm/sunflower.html

Enigmatic Echinacea: Consumers’ on-again, off-again relationship with a Prairie herb

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

I set out to photograph flowers. I may have been distracted by the bumble bees. No regrets. Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

This is a story of colds, flus, and the hope that their annoying symptoms will one day disappear. From patent medicine hacks to million dollar profits, it’s the story of Echinacea.

This purple Prairie plant is mainly marketed as a remedy for cold and flu symptoms. It is also one of the most popular herbal remedies sold in North America today. And it’s native to Canada!

Tiny hedgehog

Chances are you’ve probably seen Echinacea growing in a garden or along the side of a road. In addition to being herbal remedies, they’re also eye-catching flowers that are easy to grow.

Wonder where the complicated name comes from? It’s the Latin name of the genus, or species group. Echinacea comes from the Greek word for hedgehog, and refers to the flower’s spiny centre. Each ‘spine’ is actually a tiny flower, with its own reserves of nectar and pollen. Like sunflowers and daisies, the flower head is actually made up of dozens disk florets in the centre. The purple petal-like things are ray florets, tiny flowers with one huge petal.

Prairie power

In Canada, Echinacea grows wild in the Prairies of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It does what it can to get by, enduring drought, humidity, and low-quality soil. It blooms from June to August, and is pollinated by bees, wasps and butterflies.

Indigenous medicine cabinet

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

For over 400 years, Echinacea was used by Great Plains indigenous peoples to treat a variety of infections. European settlers on the prairies followed their example, using the plant as a cure-all for humans and even cattle. In 1897 students made extra money by gathering wild Echinecea, and by 1917 the herb was being recommended by American doctors.

The road to international fame

Echinacea went on to gain international fame and fortune, but it didn’t happen overnight. European doctors had their own medicinal plants, and little interest in finding new ones.

Echinacea was first introduced to Europe by patent medicine salesman H. C. F. Meyer, who sold Echinacea in the U.S. as a cure or just about everything, including snakebites. With hopes of expanding his market, Meyer sent samples to England for testing. The British scientists quickly learned that Echinacea didn’t do most of the things Meyer claimed it did. However, they were intrigued by its possible immune-system boosting powers, and the rest is history. In the 18th and 19th centuries Echinacea became a popular herb for treating scarlet fever, syphilis, malaria, blood poisoning, diphtheria. It probably didn’t work, but that’s what it was used for.

The fall from glory

The dramatic popularity of Echinacea led to over-harvesting of the wild plants. Fortunately for the flowers, in 1950 antibiotics were introduced and became all the rage. Echinacea fell out of favor, mainly because there was little scientific evidence that it had medicinal powers.

However, not everyone had given up on Echinacea. Research on Echinacea’s powers continued in Germany, where there were more liberal laws on the use of medicinal plants and more appetite for research. Today there are over 800 Echinacea products in Germany alone.

The cold-buster

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

In the 1970s and 80s, North American consumers realized that modern medicine couldn’t solve everything. Take the common cold. On average, adults get 3 to 4 colds a year, and kids get twice that many. Because there are 200 or so different viruses that can cause colds, there is no medical cure. Alternative medicines and herbal remedies to treat colds and flus regained popularity. Today Echinecea is touted as an immune-system booster that can prevent or treat cold symptoms, with estimated yearly sales in the tens of millions.

Does it work?

The short answer is we don’t know. Some studies say yes, others say no. The U.S. National Institutes of Health gives a tentative ‘maybe’ that Echinacea could be effective for treating the common cold and vaginal yeast infections.
Part of the problem is we haven’t figured out exactly how Echinacea works. It seems to decrease inflammation (swelling) but we don’t know what chemical is responsible. When you’re working with plant extracts that contain hundreds of different chemicals, it’s hard to say which is doing what.

One reason science haven’t given us a definitive answer is that the studies so far have used different species, different doses and different products. Part of the problem is the lack of standardization in the Echinecea marketplace. Some treatments can be 1,000 times stronger than others, and consumer reports have identified some products that don’t even contain Echinacea.

Regardless of what the science says, people still swear by it. Health authorities in Canada and the U.S. tell consumers that Echinacea is safe if they follow the directions on the bottle. If you’re allergic to other plants in the daisy family, like ragweed or marigolds, you may be allergic to this too. Also, Echinacea may interact with some medications, so make sure your doctor knows you’re taking it.

Farming a wild plant

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

Small scale Echinacea farms have sprung up in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, BC, and Alberta, but don’t produce enough to keep up with the growing demand. Before cultivation can go large-scale, researchers and farmers need to better understand Echinacea’s habits, fertilizer needs and diseases. It takes a while to figure out how to farm a wild plant, just ask Saskatoon berry farms. Echinacea in Canada is mainly harvested for the roots, which take 2-3 years to get big enough to gather.

Now you have something to think about next time you see this spiky, purple beauty.

References

http://www.britannica.com/plant/Echinacea

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/new-natural-common-cold-cures/

https://nccih.nih.gov/health/echinacea/ataglance.htmhttp://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/981.html

https://nccih.nih.gov/about/offices/od/2010-12.htm

http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/monoReq.do?id=80&lang=eng

http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/dhp-mps/prodpharma/applic-demande/guide-ld/label-etiquet-pharm/echinace-eng.php

http://www.botanicalgarden.ubc.ca/potd/2014/01/echinacea-purpurea.phphttp://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=c5804

http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/echinacea

http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/echinacea-purpurea-eastern-purple-coneflower

Click to access Kindscher-1989-Ethnobotany-of-Purple-Conflower.pdf

http://www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/crops/production/print,echinacea.html

http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex578

http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/about-us/offices-and-locations/canada-saskatchewan-irrigation-diversification-centre/canada-saskatchewan-irrigation-diversification-centre-publications/production-practices-for-echinacea-angustifolia/?id=1193337467277

http://www.agriculture.gov.sk.ca/Default.aspx?DN=7c8fbf9f-10ad-4ffd-a4f9-780db93ee478

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