Sunflower Beauty Continues to Shine

Article excerpt

FLOWERS COME AND go in fashionability.

Daisies were the rage in the 1960s.

Orchids and hydrangeas blossomed in popularity in the '80s.

And while old roses hit their stride in the early '90s, nothing can compete with the current popularity of the sunflower.

At their peak right now, sunflowers are adding their bright yellow faces to gardens and roadsides.

But they've escaped from the garden into everything from cut arrangements on tabletops to straw hats and place mats, bed linens and beach towels. Sunflower patterns appear on fabric used in baby rompers and sundresses, silk ties and boxer shorts.

The trend started a few years back, when interior designers and floral artists slipped the flowers into room settings they designed for magazine l ayouts and showrooms.

The trendiest types have gone on to other flowers, but within the mass market, the sunflower is at its peak.

The National Garden Bureau has declared 1996 as the "Year of the Sunflower" - its way of recognizing how the floral industry has responded to demand for new varieties.

Among the most popular introductions are branching plants that offer multiple blooms, dwarf varieties that don't overwhelm the bed and border and pollenless types that won't stain everything they come in contact with.

The sunflower's popularity has also caused many to stop and take a closer look at this ancient plant. Sunflowers are one of the few plants native to North America that have become major crops and were important to American Indians as a source of food and medicine. Sunflower remains dating to 3000 B.C. have been found in archaeological sites, with the Western Plains thought to be the origin for wild sunflowers, according to the National Garden Bureau.

Cultivated sunflowers are more often traced to the Southwest or Missouri-Mississippi River Valley areas.

Spanish explorers took sunflowers home with them after visiting the New World, and the flower's popularity quickly spread in Europe. Louis XIV used sunflowers as a symbol of his reign in the latter half of the 17th century.

The flower found a major advocate in Peter the Great, who ruled Russia in the early 1700s, writes Diane Morey Sitton in "Sunflowers: Growing, Cooking and Crafting with the Sunniest of Plants" ($9.95, Gibbs-Smith Pu blisher, 1995). Russians were soon growing - and eating - sunflower seeds and using the seeds' oil. Today Russia leads the world in the production of sunflower-seed oil.

Sitton, a garden writer based in Texas, says she decided to write a book about sunflowers when she noticed how popular they were.

"The more research I did, the more fun it was," she says. "I don't think that most people realize that there is so much history, commercial importance and even religious significance to them."

Sitton also offers information about growing sunflowers and using them in the kitchen and for crafts. …