Surface Creek
Friday December 19, 2014

Common Sunflower
The county weed cutter has been along the edge of this road. But the sunflowers refuse to quit ­— some are at least four inches tall and in full bloom!

I’ve noted sunflowers elsewhere, too. They bordered a country road, graced a ditch bank and in one yard I saw a clump (it had a couple of stakes to hold it up).
Allen stops for me to pick one blossom from these never-quit sunflowers. What a pretty flower! The bright yellow petals surround the dark brown center. Oops! Shake off the ants … there, that’s better.    The brown center is nearly an inch wide and the petals are about two inches long. I’d guessed my blossom to be about three inches wide so that’s about right. Below the blossom there are many green, leaf-like structures that measure about a quarter-inch-wide and half-inch-long. These are often termed “bracts,” but I prefer the label of “phyllaries” meaning “little leaves” in Greek. For indeed they do look like little leaves, and they’re very hairy … dangerous looking through my hand lens! I gently lift a “petal” free and find that there’s a seed attached, so it’s called a “ray flower.” And each tiny brown center flower in the center has its seed too. This arrangement (many individual flowers arranged to mimic a single blossom) is the hallmark of the Sunflower Tribe, the largest plant family in temperate regions.
Other sunflower plants that I’ve checked out this summer have large leaves, with the lower ones over 3-inches long and elongated leaf stalks, while the upper leaves are more heart-shaped with shorter stalks. Both leaves and stems are rough feeling and my hand lens reveals stiff hairs (hirsute in botanical jargon).
My plant, a native, is the origin of the huge-blossomed sunflowers we see in cultivated fields and yards. Names always interest me and the common name of sunflower comes from the scientific label with Greek “helio” meaning sun and “antos” meaning flower. The precise botanical label is Helianthus annus. The term “annus” meaning that the plant is an annual. The plant was named by Linnaeus in 1753 from specimens collected in Peru and Mexico. The plant has been cultivated since pre-columbian times for the edible seeds. Before Linnaeus, plants and animals had lengthy names in Latin. Over a lifetime, Linnaeus devised a naming system using only two words: one for the genus (large group) and another for the specific individual plant. This “binomial” is the modern naming procedure for animals and plants. Of course there are many blossoms called “sunflowers” if they have brown or yellowish centers surrounded by yellow petals. In fact, if you look closely, they are nearly everywhere in the late summer!

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