Last summer, an unexpected change graced the Napa Valley landscape where rows upon rows of grapevines stand. One one corner, an acre-plus field was planted to sunflowers, the state flower of Kansas, in honor of the deceased founder of Rudd Estate in Oakville. It’s not usual to see a field lie fallow for a year or two between replanting, but to beautify it with this well-known giant was striking.
Most varieties of Helianthus annuus are not native to North America (though we do have a wild species), yet nearly everyone can identify the common sunflower. The name of the flower is meaningful in many languages. The French word tournesol and Spanish girasol both mean “turn toward the sun,” which describes the sunflower’s habit of rotating with the sun’s daily journey across the sky.
As a member of the Aster family, sunflowers have many cousins–including daisies, cosmos, and zinnias, but also the artichoke, sunchoke (Jerusalem artichoke), and–perhaps most surprisingly, lettuce! Asters are best known for their composite flowers, which consist of many smaller complete flowers on a disc surrounded by ray florets.
These flowers are unique in that they have the ability to provide energy in the form of nourishment and vibrancy—attributes which mirror the sun and the energy provided by its heat and light.~ProFlowers
Kids love to play in sunflowers, and for good reason! Nothing as tall is easier to grow (corn, for example, is also fun to run through, but takes a bit more care). The ever-popular Sunflower House, by Eve Bunting should be a staple in every school garden. Like most members of the Aster family, sunflowers bloom in late summer, their smiling faces welcoming children back to school in August.
Teachers also love sunflowers. Personally, I’ve taught kids and adults the many wonders of this curious plant. Sunflowers are an excellent object for science investigation. The plant structure itself is interesting enough with it’s hollow stem and sturdy root ball, but the diversity of flower color and stalk height could keep an inquiry unit going for weeks. For students who might be afraid of bees, sunflowers keep them observable at a safe distance.
Sunflowers are an important agricultural crop, not just for cut flowers, but also for edible oil and seed products. Sunflower oil can withstand high heat, making it a slightly less expensive substitute for olive oil. Sunflower seed butter, crackers, and salad toppings go beyond ballpark snacking seeds.
Sunflowers bring STEM education to life! Besides the scientific study of sunflower life cycle, understanding how sunflowers are hybridized to be pollenless (for cut flowers) or how oil and seeds are harvested provide lessons in technology and engineering. Finally, sunflowers are a mathematical curiosity! The concentric pattern of the inflorescence and seed stripes make them a good topic for noticing variation and natural design.
If school gardens had just one symbolic flower, sunflowers are it. The meaning of sunflower is associated with longevity, nourishment, and strength. School gardens definitely bring all of these qualities to a school campus.
Teaching with Sunflowers
- Five Things Sunflowers Can Teach Us About How to Live Life
- NutureStore Sunflower Activities for Kids (Preschool)
- Sunflower Life Cycles (K-2) from National Agriculture in the Classroom.
- Botany Math (K-2)
- Variation in Sunflower Seeds
- Sunflowers Show Complex Fibononacci Sequences
- Flower Motifs in Literature