Plant & People: Sunflower: An incredible plant

The sunflower, scientifically known as Helianthus annuus (Family Asteraceae) belongs to a genus of plant which comprises about 70 species. Interestingly, the plant is named sunflower due to its characteristic nature of facing the sun during day time.

It is a tall, erect, herbaceous annual plant. Its leaves are simple, broadly ovate to elliptic, lower leaves mostly oppositely arranged and upper leaves alternately arranged along the stem. Inflorescence sunflower is a capitulum containing composite heads, solitary at terminal of peduncle or terminal on a branch or axillary; ray and disc flowers present. Ray flowers are sterile. Disc flowers perfect, tubular and purple brown to yellow. The ovary is inferior in disc flowers. The fruit is an achene.

Sunflower is rich in proteins almost as much as meat. The high protein content in sunflower oil is vital for building and repairing tissues and the production of hormones and enzymes in the body. The seeds can be eaten raw, dried or roasted. Sunflower seeds can be added to the main menus or used in cakes, fruit salads and other desserts. Grounded seeds can be added to make tasty soup broth. These notable medicinal, nutritional and culinary benefits of sunflower have resulted in its growing popularity worldwide. It’s of high biological value in that it greatly improves individual strength and immunity.

The different health advantages of sunflower seeds are credited to the high levels of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, phytosterols, tochopherols, protein, copper, folafes, iron, zinc and vitamin B. Sunflower oil contains four important fatty acids which are palmitic, stearic, oleic and linoleic. The decoction made from the seeds is traditionally used for the treatment of cough and kidney inflammation.

Tea and tincture prepared from sunflower petals is known to be very effective for the treatment of sore throat and to reduce inflammation of the windpipe and tonsils. In some countries, tea prepared from the flowers is used to treat lung complaints and malaria and the tincture prepared from the bark and the flowers are helpful in treating intermittent fevers.

The decoction made from sunflower root is used for alleviating rheumatism. It is also used as a warm wash on pains and for treating diabetes mellitus. Poultice prepared from crushed leaves is used against snakebites, sore swellings and spider bites. The powdered sunflower leaves in ointment can also be used for swellings and sores.

Sunflower is very rich in calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc and vitamins A, K and E and hence it’s effectively used against inflammation and general irritations of the skin. Being very high in vitamin E, it acts as an emollient which traps moisture and keeps the skin well hydrated. It also prevents damage to cells by ultraviolet light and aids against premature ageing of skin by protecting its collagen and elastin composition.

Sunflower oil contains selenium mineral that is beneficial in reducing the risk of cardiac problems and hepatic degradation. Also, sunflower oil is very important in prevention of rheumatoid arthritis and the Vitamin E in the oil greatly protects against colon cancer by neutralising the cancer-causing free radicals. Sunflower oil is an incredible source of folic acid (folate) which is essential for DNA synthesis. It is very important for mothers during the periconceptional period as this may prevent neural tube defects in the baby. In fact, folate assists in production of new cells in the body by enhancing replication of RNA and DNA which is very vital for development and growth of foetus.

Sunflower oil has been positively correlated with a lower amount and severity of asthma attacks because of its anti-inflammatory qualities, which are derived from its vitamin content, as well as the beneficial fatty acids in it.

Sunflower seeds have high content of dietary fibre and its regular consumption may be very important in prevention of various diseases and disorders including: piles, constipation, colon cancer and haemorrhoids. (Richard Komakech)  

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