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The Significance of the Ukrainian Sunflower

Ukrainian petrykivka decorative painting of sunflowers by Kateryna Gneusheva.

Ukrainians have always loved flowers. Flowers fill the yards of village houses, and are woven into wreaths (venki) for girls to wear at celebrations. They’re embroidered on fabrics and painted on walls, wooden furniture, and household items in a folk art called petrykivka, added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Sunflowers—soniashnyk in Ukrainian—have been grown in Ukraine since the mid-18th century, where golden fields of them face the sunrise in the east. They are Ukraine’s national flower, and in folk imagery represent the warmth and power of the sun, which was worshipped by pre-Christian Slavs.

Ukrainians wove sunflowers into wreaths for girls during celebrations, embroidered them on fabric and clothes, carved them on wooden furniture and household items, and even painted them on walls. The flowers that embellished dresses and shirts didn’t have a merely decorative meaning.

People also used them to protect the wearer against evil spirits, bad fortune and illness. Embedded in national folklore, you can find sunflowers in traditional Ukrainian songs, poetry, and art. The flower also helps fuel the national economy today; Ukraine and Russia supply up to 70–80% of the world’s sunflower oil exports.

Sunflowers made their way to Ukraine through the efforts of the early explorers of North America, where it was one of only a few native food crops (along with squash, blueberries and pecans). Seeds were brought back to the old world, and found to grow well in hot, dry places with rich soil, such as the “Black Earth” regions of Ukraine.

Throughout Ukraine’s history, the flower has been used as a symbol of peace. In June 1996, to celebrate Ukraine giving up nuclear weapons, U.S., Russian and Ukrainian defense ministers planted sunflowers in a ceremony at southern Ukraine’s Pervomaysk missile base.

“The ceremony celebrated Ukraine’s abandonment of the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal, which it inherited in the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union,” the Washington Post reported back then. “It also marked the near completion of a primary U.S. strategic goal since the Soviet breakup: to gather all ex-Soviet nuclear weapons in Russia, thus avoiding a proliferation of nuclear powers.”

June 4, 1996, photo provided by William Perry, shows, from left, Russian defense minister Pavel Grachev, Ukrainian Defense Minister Valery Schmarov, and U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry planting sunflowers at the site which formerly housed a missile silo at a military base near Pervomaysk, some 155 miles south of Kyiv, Ukraine. (Department of Defense via AP)

More than 25 years after that ceremony, Russian and Ukrainian ministers are at war, but the meaning of the sunflowers as symbols of peace has not changed, as the cropping up of sunflowers worldwide has become a call on leaders to plant the seeds again for a more peaceful future.

In a strange twist, the fact that Ukraine is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of sunflower seeds and sunflower oil is due to the Orthodox Church. During Lent, believers were not supposed to use butter or lard for cooking. Since sunflower oil was a fairly recent arrival in the 18th century, there were no specific restrictions on its use. Sunflower culture took off. By the 1800s, there were big fields of them all over Ukraine, and people were chewing the seeds and spitting out the shells.

Today this versatile crop covers huge swathes of central Ukraine, bringing joy, beauty, symbolism, and snacks to the people of Ukraine – and the world – by way of the ever-powerful energy of the sun.

Sunflower Fun Facts

  • Native to North America, the Ukraine national flower was also beloved by Indians who used it in cooking, making oil, dyes and body paints. They also utilized it for their medicinal properties. The Cherokee knew how to prepare an infusion of sunflower leaves to heal kidneys while the Dakota used it for chest pain.
  • If you grow sunflowers in your garden you can not only use their seeds for cooking and making oil, but also their buds as natural helpers in your kitchen. Once you empty sunflower heads of seeds, you can convert them into disposable scrubbing pads and use them for jobs too tough for your regular cleaning tools. Talking about some eco-friendly zero waste products!
  • Sunflowers are not just pretty faces. They are also effective for extracting toxins like lead, arsenic and uranium from soil. Sunflowers helped remove toxins after the disaster at the Ukrainian Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986, and in 2011, Japan planted millions of sunflowers after the devastating tsunami that destroyed reactors in the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
  • Sunflowers were so popular during the 19th century that famous Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh, completed two series of still life paintings dedicated to them.
  • Did you know that sunflower bud turns its head as it follows the sun across the sky from east to west and droops its head at sundown? This amazing phenomenon is known as heliotropism.
  • According to 2012 Guinness World Record Book, Hans-Peter Schiffer holds the record for the tallest sunflower. Grown in Germany, it topped out at a whopping 27 feet tall! Only 2 years later, the same sunflower veteran toppled his own record and grew a plant that reached 30 ft 1 in height.

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