Friday, October 05, 2012

The Bounty of Sunflowers.

The sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is an amazing plant. It is both incredibly useful and incredibly beautiful. What more can one ask of any plant?

This majestic flowering plant is native to the Americas – the ‘New World,’ which was opened up to the Old in the wake of Christopher Columbus’ voyage in 1492, and the subsequent colonization by the Spanish. The Americas provided a huge bounty of new foods to the Old World, and it is easy to forget the sunflower alongside the serious competition of chocolate, maize, tomatoes, potatoes, avocados and the rest.

There is no doubt that the sunflower was cultivated by indigenous Americans for thousands of years – perhaps even before the domestication of maize. It was apparently used by them in a wide variety of ways, both edible and not. When it arrived in Europe, early in the sixteenth century, it was used medicinally – a common fate of rare, imported, and therefore somewhat ‘magical’ plants. In the eighteenth century it became popular as an ornamental plant, which is hardly surprising given its spectacular and beautiful flower-head. By the nineteenth century it was becoming appreciated as an excellent source of oil, with Russia taking it up with some enthusiasm and being the first to grow it commercially on a large scale.  

As these things go, the sunflower had to travel to Europe before it could be fully appreciated by the new inhabitants of its original home. It was not until the early nineteenth century that the potential of this new/old crop began to be realized back in the Americas. A couple of short extracts from agricultural journals of the time will suffice to give an idea of the process of its rediscovery.

 From The Massachusetts Agricultural Repository and Journal, in 1815:

“Perhaps on trial the sunflower seeds will be found to contain an oil, that will answer the like good purposes with the sallad and medicinal oil now in use. The practicableness of procuring a native oil, at a moderate expense, and the importance of using it fresh, together with the probable uses of sun-flower oil for varnishes, for the basis of ointments, and for mixing of paints, as well as other purposes to which oils may be applied, claim our attention to this subject.”

From The New England Farmer of 1830

“A very delicate oil, much used in Russian cookery, is expressed from the seeds of the sunflower and is prepared by enclosing them in bags, and steeping them in warm water, after which the oil is expressed; this is actually as sweet as butter.”

For further interesting points about sunflower seed uses, history, and myth-tory, I can do no better than give you the text of a fine article from the Australian Town and Country Journal, February 20, 1886:
The Sunflower.
The aesthetic movement contributed largely to the culture of the sunflower. We were informed by a seedsman recently that the sale of sunflower seeds for ordinary garden purposes has greatly increased 1 both in this country and in England during the past few years.
The common tall sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is said to have derived its name of sunflower from its resemblance to the radiant beams of the sun, and not, as is popularly supposed and celebrated by poets, from its flowers turning to face the sun -a delusion fostered by Darwin, Moore, and Thomson, the latter of whom tells us that, unlike most of the flowery race,

The lofty follower of the sun,
Sad when he sets, shuts up her yellow leaves,
Drooping all night, and, when he warm returns,
Points her enamor'd bosom to its ray.

In his book on "Plant Lore," &c, Mr. Folkard informs us that "the helianthus has also been falsely identified with the sunflower of classical story - the flower into which poor Clytie was transformed, when, heart-broken at the desertion of her lover, Phoebus, she became rooted to the ground, and became, according to Ovid, metamorphosed into a flower resembling a violet. 'Held firmly by the root, she still turns to the sun she loves, and changed herself, she keeps her love unchanged.’” Now the helianthus, or modern sunflower, could not have been the blossom mentioned by Ovid, inasmuch as it is not a European plant, and was not known in his day. In its native country of Peru the helianthus is said to have been much reverenced on account of the resemblance borne by its radiant blossoms to the sun, which luminary was worshipped by the Peruvians. In their temple of the sun the officiating priestesses ,were crowned with sunflowers of pure gold, and they , wore them in their bossoms and carried them in their hands. The early Spanish invaders of Peru found in those temples of the sun numerous representations of the sunflower in virgin gold, the workmanship of which was so exquisite that it far out-valued the precious metal of which they were formed.
The sunflower is turned to many economic uses. It furnishes the finest honey and wax. When the seed is crushed as linseed is, it will produce the finest oils in larger quantities in proportion to any other seed for the table as well as the painter, particularly in mixing green and blue paints. The cake is superior to linseed for fattening cattle; the oil makes the finest soap, very softening to the hands and face, superior to any other for shaving. Sheep, pigs, pigeons, rabbits, poultry of all sorts, &c., will fatten rapidly upon it, and prefer its seed to any other, pheasants in particular, causing them to have a much more glossy plumage, and become plumper in body. When shelled the seed makes, when ground, the finest flour for bread, particularly tea-cakes.

Now, the last few words of this lovely summary set me off hell-bent on searching out a recipe for a tea-cake made from sunflower seed flour. So far the search has proved elusive, but I will not give up just yet. I was surprised, when I went looking for recipes using sunflower seeds to find very few references before the 1960’s - co-incidentally, it seems, with the development of health food industry.

I give you my best finding to date – a recipe a mere 45 years old, which may be before your time (and therefore qualify as historic), but it is certainly not before mine. It sounds very good indeed, and does not require cooking, which is a bonus in summertime. It is from the iconic Australian Women’s Weekly of October 25, 1967

Flower seeds in prize biscuits.
A biscuit which has sunflower seeds (buy them at health-food stores) as an unusual and crunchy ingredient wins the $10 prize for a recipe
Sunflower Honey Chews.
4 oz. butter or substitute
¾ cup honey
4½ cups cornflakes
⅔ cup sunflower seed kernels
⅓ cup coconut
⅓ cup glace cherries
Melt butter and honey in saucepan and boil gently 5 minutes. Crush cornflakes, place in large bowl with sunflower-seed kernels, coconut, and chopped cherries. Stir in boiling butter and honey mixture, mix well. Press firmly into 11in x 7½ in x 1 ½ in greased slab tin and refrigerate until set. Best if left overnight or for a day or two, to allow flavours to blend. Cut into squares or fingers.
First prize of $10 to Mrs N.Cummings, 2 Margaret St., Merewether, N.S.W.

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