This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flower-heads - Several, on long, rough-hairy peduncles; 1 1/2 to 2 1/4 in. broad; 10 to 20 pale yellow neutral rays around a yellowish disk whose florets are perfect, fertile. Stem: 3 to 12 ft. tall, bristly-hairy, usually branching above, often reddish; from a perennial, fleshy root. Leaves: Rough, firm, lance-shaped, saw-toothed, sessile.
Tall Or Giant Sunflower. (Helianthus giganteus.)
Flowering Season - August - October.
Distribution - Maine to Nebraska and the Northwest Territory, south to the Gulf of Mexico.
To how many sun-shaped golden disks with outflashing rays might not the generic name of this clan (helios = the sun, anthos = a flower) be as fittingly applied: from midsummer till frost the earth seems given up to floral counterparts of his worshipful majesty. If, as we are told, one-ninth of all flowering plants in the world belong to the composite order, of which over sixteen hundred species are found in North America north of Mexico, surely over half this number are made up after the daisy pattern (p. 271), the most successful arrangement known, and the majority of these are wholly or partly yellow. Most conspicuous of the horde are the sunflowers, albeit they never reach in the wild state the gigantic dimensions and weight that cultivated, dark brown centred varieties produced from the common sunflower (H. annus) have attained. For many years the origin of the latter flower, which suddenly shone forth in European gardens with unwonted splendor, was in doubt. Only lately it was learned that when Champlain and Segur visited the Indians on Lake Huron's eastern shores about three centuries ago, they saw them cultivating this plant, which must have been brought by them from its native prairies beyond the Mississippi - a plant whose stalks furnished them with a textile fibre, its leaves fodder, its flowers a yellow dye, and its seeds, most valuable of all, food and hair-oil! Early settlers in Canada were not slow in sending home to Europe so decorative and useful an acquisition. Swine, poultry, and parrots were fed on its rich seeds. Its flowers, even under Indian cultivation had already reached abnormal size. Of the sixty varied and interesting species of wild sunflowers known to scientists, all are North American. Moore's pretty statement,
" As the sunflower turns on her god when he sets The same look which she turn'd when he rose," lacks only truth to make it fact. The flower does not travel daily on its stalk from east to west. Often the top of the stem turns sharply toward the light to give the leaves better exposure, but the presence or absence of a terminal flower affects its action not at all.
Formerly the garden species was thought to be a native, not of our prairies, but of Mexico and Peru, because the Spanish conquerors found it employed there as a mystic and sacred symbol, much as the Egyptians employed the lotus in their sculpture. In the temples the handmaidens wore upon their breasts plates of gold beaten into the likeness of the sunflower. But none of the eighteen species of helianthus found south of our borders produces under cultivation the great plants that stand like a golden-hel-meted phalanx in every old-fashioned garden at the North. Many birds, especially those of the sparrow and finch tribe, come to feast on the oily seeds; and where is there a more charming sight than when a family of goldfinches settle upon the huge, top-heavy heads, unconsciously forming a study in sepia and gold?
On prairies west of Pennsylvania to South Dakota, Missouri, and Texas, the Saw-tooth Sunflower (H. grosse-serratus) is common. Deep yellow instead of pale rays around a yellowish disk otherwise resemble the tall sunflower's heads in appearance as in season of bloom. The smooth stalk, with a bluish-hoary bloom on its surface, may have hairs on the branches only. Long, lance-shaped, pointed leaves, the edges of lower ones especially sharply saw-toothed, their upper surface rough, and underneath soft-hairy, are on slender, short petioles, the lower ones opposite, the upper ones alternate. Honey-bees find abundant refreshment in the tubular disk florets in which many of their tribe may be caught sucking; brilliant little Syrphidae, the Bombiliiis cheat, and other flies come after pollen; butterflies feast here on nectar, too; and greedy beetles, out for pollen, often gnaw the disks with their pinchers.
Very common in dry woodlands and in roadside thickets from Ontario to Florida, and westward to Nebraska, is the Rough or Woodland Sunflower (H. divaricatus). Its stem, which is smooth nearly to the summit, does not often exceed three feet in height, though it may be less, or twice as high. Usually all its wide-spread leaves are opposite, sessile, lance-shaped to ovate, slightly toothed, and rough on their upper surface. Few or solitary flower-heads, about two inches across, have from eight to fifteen rays round a yellow disk.
The Thin-leaved or Ten-petalled Sunflower (H. decapetalus), on the contrary, chooses to dwell in moist woods and thickets, beside streams, no farther west than Michigan and Kentucky. Its smooth, branching stem may be anywhere from one foot to five feet tall; its thin, membranous, sharply saw-edged leaves, from ovate to lance-shaped, with a rounded base, roughest above and soft underneath, are commonly alternate toward the summit, while the lower ones, on slender petioles, are opposite. There are by no means always ten yellow rays around the yellow disks produced in August and September; there may be any number from eight to fifteen, although this free-flowering species, like the Pale-leaved Wood Sunflower (H. strumosus), an earlier bloomer, often arranges its "petals" in tens.
Jerusalem Artichoke, Earth Apple, Canada Potato, Girasole (H. tuberosus), often called Wild Sunflower, too, has an interesting history similar to the dark-centred, common garden sunflower's. In a musty old tome printed in 1649, and entitled " A Perfect Description of Virginia," we read that the English planters had "rootes of several kindes, Potatoes, Sparagus, Carrets and Hartichokes " - not the first mention of the artichoke by Anglo-Americans. Long before their day the Indians, who taught them its uses, had cultivated it; and wherever we see the bright yellow flowers gleaming like miniature suns above roadside thickets and fence rows in the East, we may safely infer the spot was once an aboriginal or colonial farm. White men planted it extensively for its edible tubers, which taste not unlike celery root or salsify. As early as 1617 the artichoke was introduced into Europe, and only twelve years later Parkinson records that the roots had become very plentiful and cheap in London. The Italians also cultivated it under the name Girasole Articocco (sunflower artichoke), but it did not take long for the girasole to become corrupted into Jerusalem, hence the name Jerusalem Artichoke common to this day. When the greater value of the potato came to be generally recognized, the use of artichoke roots gradually diminished. Quite different from this sunflower is the true artichoke (Cynara Scolymus), a native of Southern Europe, whose large, unopened flower-heads offer a tiny edible morsel at the base of each petal-like part.
Wild Sunflower (Helianthus decapetaltts)
The Jerusalem artichoke sends up from its thickened, fleshy, tuber-bearing rootstock, hairy, branching stems six to twelve feet high. Especially are the flower-stalks rough, partly to discourage pilfering crawlers. The firm, oblong leaves, taper pointed at the apex and saw-edged, are rough above, the lower leaves opposite each other on petioles, the upper alternate. The brilliant flower-heads, which are produced freely in September and October, defying frost, are about two or three inches across, and consist of from twelve to twenty lively yellow rays around a dull yellow disk. The towering prolific plant prefers moist but not wet soil from Georgia and Arkansas northward to New Brunswick and the Northwest Territory. Omnivorous small boys are not always particular about boiling, not to say washing, the roots before eating them.