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Sometimes flowers emerge as national emblems and become strongly associated with a specific group of people. The national floral emblem of Ukraine is the sunflower. The bright yellow bloom and blue skies of Ukraine mirror the colours of the national flag. Ukraine Now, the most recent project launched to promote Ukraine as a brand, also embraced the national floral emblem. Ukraine-made postal stamps, souvenirs, tableware, textiles, and fine art incorporate images of sunflowers. And eating unshelled sunflower seeds is national sport in Ukraine.

Still, little is known about this crop. Today sunflower is one of the most important cash crops in agriculture. More fields are planted with sunflowers compared to any other crop. And now the statistics: Ukraine produces 30% of all sunflower oil on the planet and almost 60% of the total world exports come from Ukraine.


Origins of the sunflower 

Sunflowers are part of the Asteraceae family. Most people are more familiar with Helianthus annuus, the common sunflower which is an annual sunflower plant and Helianthus tuberosus, more commonly known as the Jerusalem artichoke or sunroot, though there are over 110 known varieties of sunflower in the world. Now it seems like the sunflower is indigenous to Ukraine. But just like many other plants which the Ukrainians have embraced, the sunflower was imported from the Americas.

Wild sunflower seeds were found at prehistoric human settlements in the East part of North America. They must have been transported there from the Colorado Plateau in the West of modern-day US. At the Koster site, located south of Eldred, Illinois archaeological investigations yielded some small wild sunflower seeds which date back to 6,550-4,050 BCE. The Hayes site in Tennessee revealed some sunflower seeds which date back to 2,850 BCE. These seeds are larger in size and probably come from the cultivated sunflower. 


Nezahualpilli, ruler of Texcoco, Codex Ixtlilxochitl, early 17th century


In 1568 Rembert Dodoens, a Flemish physician and botanist theorised that sunflower originate from Peru. This theory was used to explain the plant’s name, which at the time was referred to by its Latin name - Chrysanthemum Peruvianum. Charles B. Heiser, a contemporary American botanist has commented: “The assignment of plants to “Peru” in the early herbals cannot always be taken literally but simply as indications that the plant came from somewhere in Americas.”


Chrysanthemum peruvianum 264, Dodoens, Rembert, 1583. Stirpium historiae pemptades sex sive libri XXX. Antverpi, ex officina Christophori Plantini


Europeans who travelled to the Americas at the end of the 15th century arrived at the time of cultivation of the sunflower. Around 1568 sunflowers appear in the European gardens, first in Spain (1568), then in Belgium (1576), following which in 1623 they have reached Italy and Germany. 


Joachim Camerarius, Joachim Jungermann: Camerarius Florilegium. 1589: Flos Solis, Chrysanthemum peruanum, Sonnen Blum


With time the sunflower became a popular decorative plant. In the early 1700’s the English were the first in Europe to start working on producing sunflower oil. By 1716, an English patent was granted for squeezing oil from sunflower seeds. Also, there were extra-long varieties of sunflower seeds used for snacking. But the rest of Europe was almost oblivious to the sunflower.

In 1698, on the orders from the Russian Tsar Peter the Great sunflowers were imported from the Netherlands to the Russian Empire. In the early 1800s Daniyl Bokaryov, a tenant farmer from the Count Sheremetyev’s estate in the Alexeevka township in the Voronezh Governorate in the South of Russia, invented a hand-mill to process oil from sunflower seed. In 1833 the first oil processing mill was built in Russia. Following the cultivation of sunflower varieties with larger seeds and heads, the sunflower became a commercial crop in Russia. In time sunflowers were grown on an industrial scale in the neighbouring countries like Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Ukraine.

The first sunflowers to arrive to Ukraine in the 18th century were decorative plants for the garden. In time unshelled sunflower seeds became a popular snack. It is not totally clear how the sunflower has landed on Ukrainian soil. 


Was there any other oil before sunflower oil?

On the territory of modern-day Ukraine, the prehistoric settlers cultivated flax - these traditions were passed down from the ancient Greeks. Herodotus comments that back in the 4th century BCE Scythians cultivated large quantities of flax. These traditions were passed down to the Kyivan Rus’ – ancient records say that the monks at the Kyiv Cave Monastery were producing flax oil. Starting from the 18th century flax oil was manufactured on an industrial scale. But with the arrival of the sunflower oil in the 19th century flax oil production almost completely seized. 

Scythians also cultivated hemp which was brought to the territory of modern Ukraine from Middle Asia. For a significant period of time hemp was the main crop for oil extraction. Hemp was mostly grown in the North of Ukraine and in Central Ukraine, namely in the Chernihiv region, Slobozhanschyna, and Poltava region.

In the 19th century in Ukraine yellow rocket cress was cultivated as an oil producing crop. But the sunflower oil slowly pushed out hemp oil, rapeseed oil, and camelina oil. It also meant that Ukrainians started using less smalets, which is processed lard specially for frying. 

Butter was virtually unknown. Popular milk products included buttermilk, fresh milk, milk with water, and cheese, but butter was not widely available. In Germany during the Medieval times butter was used exclusively as medicine and as an ingredient in ointments. When in 1878 the Swedish inventor Gustaf de Laval's developed his centrifugal cream separator, the invention sped up the butter-making process. 


Sunflower in the modern culinary culture 

Today sunflower is a cash crop for oil production, sunflower seeds are used to make oil which is the most popular cooking oil in Ukrainian national cuisine, for example the Chinese prefer to cook with such oils like the soya oil, rapeseed oil, and peanut oil. In Ukraine sunflower oil is used for frying, it’s used as salad seasoning, and to make spreads. Unshelled sunflower seeds are a popular snack, they are consumed raw, fried, and slated. Sunflower kernels are used to make halvah, which is type of confectionary traditionally made with sesame seeds, and gozinaki, a traditional Georgian caramelised dessert. Sunflower seeds can also be made into flour for baking.

Sunflower fields are the best foraging ground for the bees! One hectare of the crop yields 5 to 50 kilos of honey. Sunflower oil is used to manufacture other non-food products. It’s added to shampoos, lipsticks, hand creams, body lotions, baby care products, and even motor oils. 


- Braised sunflower buds? – What’s that?

Though Ukraine grows most of the sunflower crops in the world, the Ukrainian approach to sunflowers is quite conservative. But master chefs in the US continue to develop new and exciting recipes.


Braised sunflower bud with tomato and farro. Chef Aaron Adams


In the 17th century in England braised or grilled sunflower buds prepared like artichokes seasoned with oil and vinegar were very popular. In Germany in the 18th century for a short period of time sunflowers were used as a coffee substitute.

Nowadays it’s possible to find recipes for cooking young sunflower buds just like artichokes. First the buds are dipped in boiling lightly salted water, following which the outer dark green areas are trimmed, yellow petals are removed to reveal the sunflower heart. The rest depends on how adventurous you feel: the sunflower could be used as filling for pies, to make soup, marinated in oil and seasoned with herbs, served as a side dish, baked with cream or cream cheese, marinated in vinegar and consumed as a snack – the world is your oyster!

This is exactly what the restaurant chefs are doing right now. They are creating some of the most amazing recipes which dazzle even more when the basic ingredient – the common sunflower is revealed. Every part of the sunflower could be consumed, not just the buds, but the petals, green shoots, and even the stalks. The stalks are cleaned to remove the outer course layer and cooked like asparagus using the sous vide technique or vacuum cooking. The stalks are served seasoned with butter and lemon. They also could be made into custard. 

Perhaps you see the vast swaths of sunflowers differently now and will be willing to experiment more in the kitchen?




1. Nezahualpilli, ruler of Texcoco, Codex Ixtlilxochitl, early 17th century. Bibliotheque nationale de France, Paris.
2. Chrysanthemum peruvianum 264, Dodoens, Rembert, 1583. Stirpium historiae pemptades sex sive libri XXX. Antverpi?, ex officina Christophori Plantini. Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerpen, Belgium.
3. Joachim Jungermann: Camerarius Florilegium. 1589. University Library of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany.



1. Braised sunflower bud with tomato and farro. Chef Aaron Adams, Farm Spirit, Portland, Oregon, USA.