We stand with the people of Ukraine, and in their honor, let’s talk about the sunflower. This flower has been deeply meaningful for Ukraine for several hundred years and today it's their national flower. Internationally, the flower is now a recognized symbol to show support for the people of Ukraine and for the Ukrainian resistance against the Russian invasion.
Sunflowers are prime examples of a heliotropic flower. "Heliotrope" describes any plant that tilts during the day to follow the movement of the sun across the sky. After the bloom matures, it stops this movement and remains facing east to greet the rising sun. Scientists believe that flowers and plants move in this way to take full advantage of the power of the sun to fuel photosynthesis. Also many pollinators are more attracted to warm flowers.
The flower that we recognize as the Sunflower is actually a false flower. That main disc is made up of many tiny individual yet connected flowers
Sunflowers originated in North and South America. Sunflowers are thought to have been domesticated by Native Americans 3,000 to 5,000 years ago. People used the seeds for nourishment and the flowers as decoration. It is not known whether Indigenous peoples created oil from the seeds, but it's possible.
In the 16th century, European colonizers brought specimens from the Americas back to Europe. The plant made its way across Europe into the Russian Empire, where it grows well - especially in central Ukraine.
The sunflower is connected to pre-Christian Slavic times. The sun has always been an important force, pre-Christian or modern, life on earth relies on the sun. Many dieties are connected to the sun and festivals developed to honor the deity and the sun. The sunflower with its bright face may harken back to these early instincts of revering the sun as the life-giving force that it is. This connection may linger in lands where winter is harsh and unrelenting.
In Ukraine and in Russia, the plant became popular because the Eastern Orthodox Church forbade using butter or lard for cooking during Lent. As a newly introduced oil producing seed, there were no restrictions on eating sunflower oil. This led to an increase in the planting of sunflower fields.
Stretching east from the country of Moldova through Ukraine is an exceptionally fertile belt of black soil - Chernozem. Most of Ukraine is farmable land and most of this farmland is Chernozem. Ukraine is one of the most fertile places on earth. Ukraine’s climate and fertile land means it is a perfect place for growing cereals and seed oil plants - like sunflowers.
Ukraine is called the breadbasket of Europe because it produces so much of the food sold in European markets. From May until the fall harvest, large fields full of sunflowers are everywhere in the countryside. Currently, Ukraine is the largest exporter of sunflower seed oil in the world.
Much like olive oil, sunflower oil is made by pressing the seeds. The oil can be created using chemical solvent - it can be physically pressed at lower temperatures; the sunflower oil we use is cold pressed.
We won't pretend to know how to bring about a resolution to this conflict. Just as the sunflower brings the promise of spring, of summer and of the eventual harvest, we sincerely hope for lasting peace and that all refugees find safe passage and home.
Next week, we'll focus on the benefits of using sunflower oil in skincare. Stay tuned for Part 2 in our series about Sunflowers!