Gardening Plant science

Why Do Sunflowers Follow the Sun?

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Why do sunflowers follow the sun? Photo: Pixabay

It’s well-known that the sunflower (Helianthus annuus) follows the sun: its flower buds face east in the morning, south at noon and west in the afternoon, then return to their original position overnight. When the inflorescence finally opens, however, all movement ceases and the flower remains in an eastward orientation. But why?

Circadian Rhythm

Almost all living things, from germs to plants to mammals, follow a timetable of about 24 hours. This is called circadian rhythm and is a sort of biological clock. In its simplest expression, the clock tells the cells when to wake up and when to sleep, but its effect is much more extensive than that. In the case of the sunflower, in particular, it tells the stem how to grow.

A Stem That Grows at Different Speeds

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The stem elongates more quickly on the shady side, causing it to bend towards the sun. Illus.: ScienceMag

During the day, beginning in the morning, the sunflower stem elongate more rapidly on the shady side than on the sunny side, which makes the stem tilt in the opposite orientation. As the day progresses, shade moves eastward and so does the part of the stem that elongates fastest, pushing the bud westward. As a result, the flower bud follows the sun.

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At night, the stem elongates fastest on the west side, bringing the flower back to its eastern position. Illus.: ScienceMag

When the sun sets, the stem changes tactics and elongates mostly on the west side and this continues all night, thus pushing the flower bud back to its original position facing east.

So that’s how it’s done… but what advantage does the plant find in this movement?

More Sun, More Energy

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The flower bud is covered in green sepals and carries out photosynthesis. Photo: Tobyotter, Flickr

Before it opens, the inflorescence is covered with green leaf-like sepals that, like all the green parts of the plant, carry out photosynthesis. By always facing the sun, they help the plant gain more energy. When a sunflower stem is attached to a stake to prevent it from moving, this reduces the plant’s biomass, a proof that photosynthesis was not as effective in providing storable energy as in a free-moving sunflower.

When sunflowers are subjected to 30-hour days under laboratory conditions, this totally upsets their circadian rhythm: they lose the ability to redirect their flower buds eastward overnight.

Flowers are For Bees

But why then does the stem stop moving and remain facing east once the flower opens?

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When the flower opens, the sepals are now at its back and less efficient at photosynthesis. Photo: Pixabay

As the inflorescence expands and yellow ray flowers open, the green sepals, once out front, are pushed back behind the flower so they are largely hidden from the sun and therefore become less useful as a source of energy.

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Bees prefer eastern-facing flowers in the morning. Photo: Pixabay

However, a flower that faces the morning sun warms up faster than a flower facing any other direction. And bees and other pollinating insects, being cold-blooded, need extra warmth in the morning to overcome the chilliness still in the air. That’s why, in the morning, when the air is still cool, they tend to pollinate flowers oriented to the east over those facing any other orientation and to stay on them for a longer time.

One study showed that, in total, about five times more pollinators visited east-facing sunflowers than sunflowers that were staked to face other directions.

Later in the day, when the air is warmer, insects become indifferent to the position of flowers, but its eastward-facing habit has already given the the sunflower a clear advantage over the other flowers in its surroundings in the battle to attract pollinators.

And that is why sunflowers follow the sun!20170707A Pixabay

Source: ScienceMag20170707A Pixabay

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

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