How To Look At A Sunflower

Source: The Atlantic (Clarissa Cavalheiro / Reuters)

In our age of social media usage, a late summer Instagram story would be incomplete without a candid photo of one twirling through a wild sunflower crop without a care in the world. However, despite their beguiling, buttery exteriors, sunflowers bear more importance than they initially portray.

Firstly, we must examine the structure of a sunflower. The petals of the flower are usually yellow sometimes with gradients of ochre and vermillion. In fact, sunflowers signature yellow colour can be attributed to carotenoids (organic pigments) that are present in them, and, coincidentally, these carotenoids are instrumental in protecting chlorophyll from photodamage and aid in photosynthesis. Historically, Indigenous Americans would crush their petals to create vibrant yellow dyes for fabric. While they sunflowers are indigenous to North America, they slowly progressed to Europe via colonization in the sixteenth century, and because of this migration they can be seen in artworks, such as Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

In contrast to the petals, the corolla of the flower, where the seeds are contained, does not have much pigment, and is usually brown to black in colour. However, despite the lack of colour, the corolla and plexus bear a deeply significant pattern, for the seeds grow in the Fibonacci sequence (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 etc.) . In fact, a 2016 study determined that one in five sunflowers contained either the Fibonacci sequence, or a much more elaborate mathematical sequence.

Furthermore, dexterous quality of the thick, stalk-like stem allows the plant ample flexibility, and this is especially prominent in its photosynthesis process. Sunflowers were originally thought to be heliotropic, meaning they move in constant with the sun as its rises and sets. This was proven to be false in 1597 by botanist John Gerard, as he found that sunflowers were phototropic, meaning they are partial to moving to face light sources, rather than solely the sun. As sunflowers mature and prepare for pollination, this circadian rhythm will halt, and the flowers will eventually permanently face east in order to catch the sun’s rays immediately.

A unique trait of a sunflower is their ability to absorb radiation and other dangerous elements, such as  This process is known as phytoremediation, and has been implemented on plots of land that have been exposed to radiation. Most notably, sunflowers have been used to cleanse the soil surrounding Chernobyl, Ukraine and Fukushima, Japan. Upon harvest, the sunflowers are harvested to create sunflower oil, which is both a cheaper alternative to olive oil, and can be used in everything from cooking to producing biodiesel.

Frequently, the beauty of a sunflower overshadows its practicality, for in a modern context, it is often favoured for its aesthetic appeal, and ability to churn and increase social media interactions. Sunflowers bear great significance for their exterior and interior functions adequately mirror each other. Sunflowers represent resilience; they grow in droughts and dry soils, while simultaneously cleansing them of toxins. They have crossed oceans, fed millions of people for millennia, and depict one of the most famous mathematical sequences in history. Truly, sunflowers are nature’s beacons of light, both in appearance and purpose, and their yellow colour is both an asset for their survival and demonstrative of their resilient nature.