The sunflower is one of the tallest and largest flowers found in gardens and meadows and frequently grows to about two metres in height even though it is related to the little daisy. Sunflowers can easily reach to over three metres with flower heads wider than 30 centimetres. In the centre of the flower head is a richly coloured disc made up of many small flowers called florets, and surrounding this disc are yellow and/or orange florets. Round each flower head is a circle of small pointed green leaves. The large green leaves on the sunflower stalk are hairy and rough in texture.
Sunflowers belong to the Helianthus group which gets its name from the Greek word for 'Sun'. They can be found growing wild all in many parts of the world particularly in South America - Peru and Chile, as well as many places in North America where they can start to bloom as early as May. In Peru, in ancient times, the flowers were often used in religious ceremonies because the people worshipped the Sun. In Britain they can bloom from July onwards depending on the weather.
Sunflowers are believed to always turn towards the Sun and follow the Sun's course across the sky from dawn to sunset. However, this is not true, but because of this belief the sunflower has become a symbol for faithful love.
The flattened seeds of the Sunflower can be peeled and they taste like sweet almonds as they contain protein and oil. The oil content, used for cooking and salads, is one of the main reasons why they are grown. After the oil has been extracted the remainder is made into food for poultry, so Sunflowers are cultivated in temperate regions as food crops and ornamental garden plants.
Sown in April and May, Sunflowers are easy to grow and prefer a sunny position in well-drained soil which is sheltered from strong winds. The seeds are placed straight into the ground where they are to flower. They should be about 10cm apart and 15mm deep. Some will need support as they begin to grow and may need protection from garden slugs and snails. They are attractive to bees and birds, reasonably tolerant of heat and drought, and can make lovely cut flowers.
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