Helianthus is a genus of plants comprising about 70 species. Except for three species in South America, all Helianthus species are native to North America and Central America. The common names "sunflower" and "common sunflower" typically refer to the popular annual species Helianthus annuus, whose round flower heads in combination with the ligules look like the sun. This and other species, notably Jerusalem artichoke (H. tuberosus), are cultivated in temperate regions and some tropical regions as food crops for humans, cattle, and poultry, and as ornamental plants. The species H. annuus typically grows during the summer and into early fall, with the peak growth season being mid-summer.
Perennial sunflower species are not as common in garden use due to their tendency to spread rapidly and become invasive. The whorled sunflower, Helianthus verticillatus, was listed as an endangered species in 2014 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a final rule protecting it under the Endangered Species Act. The primary threats are industrial forestry and pine plantations in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. They grow to 1.8 m (6 ft) and are primarily found in woodlands, adjacent to creeks and moist, prairie-like areas.
Close-up of a sunflower
The disk of a sunflower is made up of many little flowers. The ray flowers here are dried
The species originates in the Americas. It was first domesticated in what is now Mexico and the Southern United States. Native American peoples grew sunflowers as a crop from Mexico to Southern Canada. The species was later brought back from America by European explorers from the 16th century.
Sunflowers are usually tall annual or perennial plants that in some species can grow to a height of 300 cm (120 in) or more. They bear one or more wide, terminal capitula (flower heads), with bright yellow ray florets at the outside and yellow or maroon (also known as a brown/red) disc florets inside. Several ornamental cultivars of H. annuus have red-colored ray florets; all of them stem from a single original mutant. During growth, sunflowers tilt during the day to face the sun but stop once they begin blooming. This tracking of the sun in young sunflower heads is called heliotropism. By the time they are mature, sunflowers generally face east. The rough and hairy stem is branched in the upper part in wild plants but is usually unbranched in domesticated cultivars. The petiolateleaves are dentate and often sticky. The lower leaves are opposite, ovate, or often heart-shaped.
They are distinguished technically by the fact that the ray florets (when present) are sterile, and by the presence on the disk flowers of a pappus that is of two awn-like scales that are caducous (that is, easily detached and falling at maturity). Some species also have additional shorter scales in the pappus, and one species lacks a pappus entirely. Another technical feature that distinguishes the genus more reliably, but requires a microscope to see, is the presence of a prominent, multicellular appendage at the apex of the style. Further, the florets of a sunflower are arranged in a natural spiral.
Variability is seen among the perennial species that make up the bulk of those in the genus. Some have most or all of the large leaves in a rosette at the base of the plant and produce a flowering stem that has leaves that are reduced in size. Most of the perennials have disk flowers that are entirely yellow, but a few have disk flowers with reddish lobes. One species, H. radula, lacks ray flowers altogether.
The growth of a sunflower depends strictly on its genetic makeup and background. Additionally, the season it is planted will have effects on its development. Sunflower development is classified by a series of vegetative stages and reproductive stages that can be determined by identifying the heads or main branch of a single head or branched head.
In Brazil, a unique system of production called the soybean-sunflower system is used: sunflowers are planted first, and then soybean crops follow, reducing idle periods and increasing total sunflower production and profitability. Sunflowers are usually planted in the extreme southern or northern regions of the country. Frequently, in the southern regions, sunflowers are grown in the beginning of rainy seasons, and soybeans can then be planted in the summer. Researchers have concluded that the soybean-sunflower method of plantation could be further improved through changes in fertilizer use. The current method has been shown to have positive environmental impacts.