Roadside sunflowers brighten drive for motorists

Philip A. Janquart
Some call them roadside Sunflowers and, as it turns out, that’s just what they are: Heliantus Annuus if you are a plant expert, or the “Common Sunflower” for the rest of us. 
 Either way, they seem to be everywhere – up and down the Highway 95 Corridor and 201 heading west, along Interstate 84 going in both directions, east and west, and in many other locations throughout the valley and well beyond.
 They paint some hillsides, grow in barrow pits along railroad tracks, bloom in gullies, and proliferate off the shoulders of roads.
 And they are still out there in strength, having burst this summer into a blooming sea of yellow that, while driving your vehicle, catches your eye as the landscape rolls by like an old movie.
 “I heard there was a young woman, Sunflower Sally, who began dropping seeds from her basket as she and her family made their way from Missouri to Oregon on the Oregon Trail in the 1800s,” one Weiser resident postulated. “I think she was kind of the female counterpart to Johnny Appleseed.”
 It was a manufactured response to a question she couldn’t answer; that is, where did they came from and why do they seem to be so abundant, especially this year.
 An inquiry with the Master Gardener program at the University of Idaho Extension office in Caldwell produced the following information:
 “Hello Phil, the flower picture you sent us is a sunflower, Heliantus Annuus,” wrote Maureen, who did not provide a last name. “Sunflowers were eaten and used medicinally by Native Americans. They are an annual plant, meaning they live for only one year. Sunflowers are planted in full sun, they are reliable plants and can withstand drought. They range in height from 2-5 feet, with some cultivars growing as tall as 8 feet or more. The sunflower comes in a variety of colors from yellow, to pale white and also red. 
 “Sunflowers are very beneficial. Benefits include: they are easy to grow, are great pollinators and bees use them for nectar and the wax from the sunflower to build their hives. You can dry the seed pods and use them for bird food in the winter. One interesting fact about sunflowers is that the young plant head follows the sun. This is called ‘heliotropism.’ As the plant matures, the adult plant head will face east.” 
 The group couldn’t, however, explain the plant’s abundance or history in the area.
 Neither could a program specialist for the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, Invasive Species and Noxious Weeds.
 One thing we do know is that the roadside sunflower is not a noxious weed, as confirmed by Bonnie Davis of Washington County’s Weed Control Department.
 “Yeah, they are everywhere,” she said last week. “Some years they are more prevalent than others. I’m sure rainfall and other factors determine it, but I’m not sure about that.”
 She noted her theory that people may have brought them from another location, seeds “hitchhiked” into the area or were scattered by birds.
 Digging a little further, it turns out that the common sunflower is native to North America, according to Ask an Expert, a question and answer portal that offers one-on-one answers from cooperating university extension staff and volunteers.
 “The roadside sunflower is a North American native plant that has a wide range of tolerance for soil and moisture conditions,” explained expert, Mari Hack who said cattle and farming keep the sunflower from growing in fields, but can’t get to them on roadsides.
 According to a post by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Native peoples domesticated the sunflower by at least 4,000 years ago, growing them for their seeds, grinding them into flour and for cooking oil. They also used them for medicinal purposes.
 Leesa Jones, curator of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum in North Carolina, establishes the use of plants as signals along the Underground Railroad, which was a secret network of routes, places, and people that aided slaves trying escape to the north during the early to mid-19th century America.
 Sunflowers and similar plants were used as messages to inform enslaved people of a clear passage or a warning of caution.
 Sunflowers are also universally recognized as a symbol of positivity and happiness, which can make any drive, on just about any highway in Idaho, a more pleasing experience regardless of how they got there.


Signal American

18 E. Idaho St.
Weiser, ID 83672
PH: (208) 549-1717
FAX: (208) 549-1718

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