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Helianthus annuus, the common sunflower, is a large annual forb of the genus Helianthus grown as a crop for its edible oil and edible fruits. This sunflower species is also used as wild bird food, as livestock forage (as a meal or a silage plant), in some industrial applications, and as an ornamental in domestic gardens. The plant was first domesticated in the Americas. Wild Helianthus annuus is a widely branched annual plant with many flower heads. The domestic sunflower, however, often possesses only a single large inflorescence (flower head) atop an unbranched stem. The name sunflower may derive from the flower's head's shape, which resembles the sun.
Sunflower seeds were brought to Europe from the Americas in the 16th century, where, along with sunflower oil, they became a widespread cooking ingredient.
Description & apperance
The plant has an erect rough-hairy stem, reaching typical heights of 3 metres (9.8 ft). The tallest sunflower on record achieved 9.17 metres (30.1 ft). Sunflower leaves are broad, coarsely toothed, rough and mostly alternate. What is often called the "flower" of the sunflower is actually a "flower head" or pseudanthium of numerous small individual five-petaled flowers ("florets"). The outer flowers, which resemble petals, are called ray flowers. Each "petal" consists of a ligule composed of fused petals of an asymmetrical ray flower. They are sexually sterile and may be yellow, red, orange, or other colors. The flowers in the center of the head are called disk flowers. These mature into fruit (sunflower "seeds").
The disk flowers are arranged spirally. Generally, each floret is oriented toward the next by approximately the golden angle, 137.5°, producing a pattern of interconnecting spirals, where the number of left spirals and the number of right spirals are successive Fibonacci numbers. Typically, there are 34 spirals in one direction and 55 in the other; however, in a very large sunflower head there could be 89 in one direction and 144 in the other.This pattern produces the most efficient packing of seeds mathematically possible within the flower head.
Most cultivars of sunflower are variants of Helianthus annuus, but four other species (all perennials) are also domesticated. This includes H. tuberosus, the Jerusalem artichoke, which produces edible tubers.
To grow best, sunflowers need full sun. They grow best in fertile, moist, well-drained soil with heavy mulch. In commercial planting, seeds are planted 45 cm (1.48 ft) apart and 2.5 cm (0.98 in) deep. Sunflower "whole seed" (fruit) are sold as a snack food, raw or after roasting in ovens, with or without salt and/or seasonings added. Sunflowers can be processed into a peanut butter alternative, sunflower butter. In Germany, it is mixed with rye flour to make Sonnenblumenkernbrot (literally: sunflower whole seed bread), which is quite popular in German-speaking Europe. It is also sold as food for birds and can be used directly in cooking and salads. Native Americans had multiple uses for sunflowers in the past, such as in bread, medical ointments, dyes and body paints.
Sunflower halva is popular in countries in Eastern Europe, including Belarus, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Russia, and Ukraine as well as other countries of the former Soviet Union. It is made of sunflower seeds instead of sesame.
Sunflower oil, extracted from the seeds, is used for cooking, as a carrier oil and to produce margarine and biodiesel, as it is cheaper than olive oil. A range of sunflower varieties exist with differing fatty acid compositions; some "high-oleic" types contain a higher level of monounsaturated fats in their oil than even olive oil. The oil is also sometimes used in soap.
The cake remaining after the seeds have been processed for oil is used as a livestock feed. The hulls resulting from the dehulling of the seeds before oil extraction can also be fed to domestic animals. Some recently developed cultivars have drooping heads. These cultivars are less attractive to gardeners growing the flowers as ornamental plants, but appeal to farmers, because they reduce bird damage and losses from some plant diseases. Sunflowers also produce latex, and are the subject of experiments to improve their suitability as an alternative crop for producing hypoallergenic rubber.
Traditionally, several Native American groups planted sunflowers on the north edges of their gardens as a "fourth sister" to the better-known three sisters combination of corn, beans, and squash. Annual species are often planted for their allelopathic properties. It was also used by Native Americans to dress hair.
However, for commercial farmers growing commodity crops other than sunflowers, the wild sunflower, like any other unwanted plant, is often considered a weed. Especially in the Midwestern US, wild (perennial) species are often found in corn and soybean fields and can decrease yields.
Sunflowers can be used in phytoremediation to extract toxic ingredients from soil, such as lead, arsenic and uranium, and used in rhizofiltration to neutralize radionuclides and other toxic ingredients and harmful bacteria from water. They were used to remove caesium-137 and strontium-90 from a nearby pond after the Chernobyl disaster, and a similar campaign was mounted in response to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
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