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.

Photo by Mark S. “Sunflower Seeds”. CC.

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.

Photo by William Ismael. “Sunflower Seeds.” CC.

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.


Click to access vegetableoilstudyfinaljune18.pdf

Nice hips! Rose hips, that is.

Berries? No, rose hips! Photo by Roberto Verzo, CC,

Berries? No, rose hips! Photo by Roberto Verzo, CC,

If you have rose bushes in your area, you’ll notice they’re covered with red balls. What’s up with that? Is it a weird rose-eating fungus? Nope! They’re the roses’ fruit, called rose hips.

Roses you send to me

Ever wonder where roses came from? Well, they came from all over the place! Most species are from Asia, but a few are native to North America, Europe and northern Africa. Roses from far-flung regions are more than happy to interbreed when introduced to each other, which makes the family tree (or bush) quite muddled. Most of today’s garden roses came from 10 species from Asia.

A rose by any other name

Why rose hips? The word hip is from Old English, meaning ‘seed pod of the wild rose’. That’s a pretty specific noun! Rose hips are also called heps or haws. All these names sound like they belong in a jazz song.

Not a fruit!

Okay, I lied. Rose hips are not a fruit. Like the strawberry, they’re an aggregate fruit. If you cut one in half, you’ll see hairy achenes inside. These are the real fruit. The red fleshy stuff around them is actually the receptacle.

Can you eat them?

Yep, they're edible. Just watch out for thorns!Photo by Kristen Taylor, rose hips, CC,

Yep, they’re edible. Just watch out for thorns!Photo by Kristen Taylor, rose hips, CC,

Yes! Well, just the fleshy red part. The achenes have tiny, irritating hairs that would do nasty things to your insides. Some rose species have bigger hips than others, ranging from pea to cherry-sized. R. rugosa generally have the largest hips, and therefore have the most to eat! Rose hips are eaten by birds and small animals in the fall and winter.

Why would I want to eat them?

I asked the same question when I was 14. I’d read in a book that rose hips have more vitamin C than oranges, and I wanted to know what they tasted like. I plucked some large hips off my Mom’s rose bush and went at them with a knife and cutting board. Unlike apples, rose hips are mostly fluffy seeds with a tiny layer of edible red flesh. Peeling off this layer is labour intensive. Once it was free I popped it in my mouth and savored the tangy flavour, which reminded me of a crabapple. Texture wise, it felt like having a scrap of peach skin stuck in your teeth. It was yummy, but definitely not worth the effort.

Some would disagree with me.

Kissed by a rose

Rose hips are jam-packed with nutrients. Photo by Mark Garth, Rose Hips, CC,

Rose hips are jam-packed with nutrients. Photo by Mark Garth, Rose Hips, CC,

Rose hips are nutritional power-houses. A handful of rose hips contains as much vitamin C as 60 oranges! They are rich in vitamin A and B. They also have bioflavonoids, chemicals that strengthen blood vessels to prevent bruising, nosebleeds and hemorrhages.

If you live in a cold, dark county far away from orange groves, rose hips start looking pretty good. In Sweden, rose hip soup, or Nyponsoppa, is a popular dessert. Many indigenous groups in North America used rose hip tea and syrup for respiratory infections and sore mouths, and as a source of vitamins during the winter. They were used traditionally to cure arthritis, colds, indigestion, bladder stones and even gonerrhea.

Rose hips played a role in the war effort. England had a hard time importing oranges during the Second World War. It was kept scurvy-free by rose-hip syrup, made from hips hand-picked by volunteers.

I want to try them!

Okay, if you insist. If you pick your own, avoid bushes that were sprayed with pesticides. For the best result, wait until after the first frost. If you do they’ll be softer and sweeter. Just slice them in half with scissors or a knife and remove the seeds. Make tea with the fresh hips or throw them in salads. If you’re ambitious, you can make jelly, jams, syrups sauces and even cupcakes! Just be careful not to use aluminum pans, which will react with and destroy all that lovely vitamin C.

Enjoy the rainbow colours of rose hips this fall! Perhaps even sip some rosehip tea, which you can buy commercially.


6 things I didn’t know about strawberries

Behind that red juiciness lurks hidden secrets. Strawberry. Photo by Vladimir Fishmen, CC.

Behind that red juiciness lurks hidden secrets. Strawberry. Photo by Vladimir Fishmen, CC.

It’s strawberry season in Ontario, and you know what that means: strawberry shortcake, muffins, trifles, and my personal favorite, spinach salad with strawberries!

Growing up it was my job to gather the strawberries from our small patch in the backyard. We never had many berries, as the squirrels got there before we did! To celebrate my largest harvest I decided to take initiative…and wash them in the kiddie pool. The one my brother and I had recently vacated. Not one of my best decisions. My mother was not impressed with the pool’s sanitary conditions, so I had to donate my beautiful strawberries to our local Feed the Birds and Squirrels Fund. Sigh.

In spite of this disappointment, my passion for eating strawberries only grew. Realizing I know very little about strawberries other than the fact that they are delicious, I decided to do a bit of research. I came up with the following list of reasons why strawberries are awesome.

1. A strawberry is not a berry

Strawberries aren't berries, but a banana is. Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt, Pink Sherbert Photography, CC.

Strawberries aren’t berries, but a banana is. Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt, Pink Sherbert Photography, CC.

Mind blown! In botanical terms (and I love botanical terms), berries are fleshy fruit that develop from a single ovary. Think blueberries, tomatoes, bananas, avocados, and even pumpkins. Real berries have seeds on the inside. Strawberries have seeds on the outside. Oops.

2. A strawberry is not even a fruit

Whaa? This is getting ridiculous. Of course strawberries are fruit, it says so in the food guide! Not according to botanists. They consider strawberries to be an accessory, or compound fruit. The green spots we call ‘seeds’, but botanists call ‘achenes’, are the real fruit. Each of these 100 mini-fruits must be pollinated separately.

The red stuff we like to munch on is the receptacle, the part of the flower that supports all of its sexual organs. When you think about it, fruit is just an assembly of plant lady bits. Maybe not a topic to bring up at the dinner table.

If you don’t believe me, these photos of developing strawberries might help:

Close-up of the hundreds of achenes and their leftover pistils. Each one has a seed inside. Photo by Stephen Shellard IMG_2771 CC.

Close-up of the hundreds of achenes and their leftover pistils. Each one has a seed inside. Photo by Stephen Shellard IMG_2771 CC.

The receptacle in this image seems to be doing it's own thing. Photo by Jessie Hirsch, CC.

The receptacle in this image seems to be doing it’s own thing. Photo by Jessie Hirsch, CC.

Photo by Jessie Hirsch, CC.

3. Attack of the clones!

Runners shooting out from the mother plant. Photo by Colleen Ellse CC.

Runners shooting out from the mother plant. Photo by Colleen Ellse CC.

Strawberries have strange sex lives. The flowers are hermaphroditic and pollinate themselves. However, for a beautiful, well-formed receptacle, they need bees to help out.

Strawberries don’t normally reproduce using seeds. Instead, they reproduce asexually. The mother plant sends out runners that set down roots, creating daughter ‘clones’. The clones are genetically identical to the mother plant.

Farmers who want big berries cut off the clones, leaving the mother plant more energy to produce the fruit. The fewer runners, the bigger the berries. Farmers who grow berries for processing let a few runners go, and their berries are smaller. But if they’re being mashed into jam, size doesn’t matter! About 75% of strawberry crop is processed to make frozen strawberries, jams and yogurts. Only 25% is sold fresh.

4. Have a heart!

The elusive double strawberry. Photo by Petra Chill Mimi, stawb CC.

The elusive double strawberry. Photo by Petra Chill Mimi, stawb CC.

In many Western cultures, the heart-shaped strawberry symbolized love, passion and purity. For the Romans it was a symbol of Venus, Goddess of Love.

Next time you go into a Medieval church, look up, waaaay up, and you might see strawberries at the tops of the pillars. Stone masons put them there as a symbol of purity and perfection. In Shakespeare’s play Othello, Othello gives his wife Desdemonda a handkerchief embroidered with strawberries, which symbolize her purity.

According to one legend, if you share a ‘double strawberry’ (those ginormous strawberries where it looks like two have grown together) with someone, the two of you will fall in love. Aww. Nice thought, but there’s no way I’m sharing my strawberries! Not only are they expensive, but want all the health benefits all to myself.

5. Marvelous Medicine

The Ancient Romans believed strawberry fruits and leaves had many medical uses, such as a treatment for kidney stones, fevers, liver problems, throat infections, bad breath and fainting.

Maybe they weren’t far off. Today we know that strawberries contain antioxidants (like vitamin C, Folate) that prevent cancer. Eating them daily has been shown to reduce cancer cell growth. They also have omega-3 fatty acids. Fat in strawberries, who knew? They contain Vitamin K, which is important for bone health and most people don’t get enough of it. They also contain iodine, a chemical that kick-starts the thyroid, your body’s powerhouse. The acid in strawberries also whitens teeth and heals the gums. Huh, maybe the Romans were right about bad breath!

Eating 8 strawberries will give you 160% of daily your vitamin C. By weight, that’s more than oranges. No wonder they are one of the world’s most popular fruits!

6. What’s in a name?

Why strawberry? In English, they used to be called strewberries, because the low-hanging fruit appear to be ‘strewn’ along the ground. Once farmers started bringing these delicate fruit to market packed in straw, the name was changed to strawberry. But you can use strewberry if you really want to. Happy strawberry eating and picking!


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