May I grow so tall and bright,
So free and wild,
So brave and vibrant,
That when you see me standing
You think I am a Sunflower.
Some people see tree leaves change color and fall to the ground, as a sign that summer is ending and the rush of the school year in gearing up. Here in the Flint Hills, it’s the glow of the towering sunflower that prepares us for the changing season ahead.
The Tallgrass Prairie displays a wealth of sunflower varieties and there are over 50 different species that have grown throughout all of Kansas giving it its appropriate title “The Sunflower State.”
While seemingly a simple flower, the sunflower is made up of many flowers arranged in precise symmetrical patterns. The head consists of florets, closely clumped together that will eventually mature into what many call sunflower seeds. The plant’s true seeds are located inside the husks of the fruits.
Over 3000 years ago, the sunflower was essential and valuable to Native American tribes. It was ground into flours for making breads and soups and the ground seeds were boiled to extract the oil. Its oil was used to soften leather, as a salve for wounds and as a hair conditioner.
Today, sunflower seeds provide the third most common source of cooking oil and it can also be converted into biofuel. Bees and butterflies enjoy the nectar and pollen as they pollinate the flowers. The large seed heads serve the winter food needs of goldfinches, sparrows and many small mammals. Yellow dye can be extracted from the flowers and purple-black dye from the seed. In addition, sunflowers tolerate high levels of soil toxins and are used to remove lead, arsenic, and radioactive isotopes from contaminated soil.
So just like with so many things in the Flint Hills, the sunflowers remind us not just of the changing seasons but of the deep history that once roamed this prairie and the abundance of resources it has provided for thousands of years. At Camp Wood YMCA, we are blessed to be encompassed by so much natural education and endless beauty.
“Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow. It’s what the sunflowers do” – Helen Keller.