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23 september 2018

Stephen Harris' Sunflowers, for the Reaktion Botanical series, is not only about the Kansas state symbol. It is a book about all the Asteraceae, the huge family of showy plants with composite flowers that supplies us with garden treasures and roadside allergens.

In addition to sunflowers, Asteraceae include daisies and dandelions, ragweed and wormwood, dahlias and chrysanthemums. Once you are aware of the family relationship, you start to see Asteraceae everywhere. In my partner's garden grow blue mistflower, orange cosmos, Mexican marigold, and "October" asters. At times it seems harder to find a plant that isn't among the Asteraceae.

The family is so diverse that it's difficult to write a unified book about it. Most people do not group that vast range of plants together culturally, so the botanical grouping can seem oddly arbitrary. Asteraceae are not very important as food crops. Lettuce is the most familiar, and lettuces might deserve a book of their own. The globe artichoke, the only distantly-related jerusalem artichoke, and the endive are three of the more noteworthy asteraceous vegetables, and though delicious, none is much of a staple. Herbs like tarragon and chicory are more marginal still. You'd be hard-pressed to build regular meals around Asteraceae.

Sunflowers are of course important as oilseeds. Sunflower oil lurks in numerous processed foods, and sunflower seeds dot the occasional baked good or top a salad. Baseball players are notably addicted to sunflower seeds, because of their cracking-and-spitting properties. Sunflower seeds are tasty, but there is not much to them, and they will not soon replace salted nuts as anyone's idea of a great cocktail snack.

Since we got a bird feeder last winter, I have spent some time watching woodpeckers extract black sunflower seeds from its wire-mesh walls. This summer, we watched adults feed young woodpeckers, who clung to a tree-trunk nearby clamoring for seeds. The harried adult would get just the right sunflower seed, hop up to an "anvil" created by the scar from a pruned branch, hammer the seed open, and present the kernel to the youngster. About a quarter of the American sunflower crop is used for birdseed.

In nine participially-named chapters (e.g. "Amazing," "Civilizing") Harris cross-matches a number of big topics across the wide range of plant species he discusses. He looks at natural history, medicine, agriculture, commodity trading, cultural significance, botanical illustration, preservation in herbaria and in seed banks. I get the sense that the Asteraceae are among the more beautiful and useless things in Creation, at least as far as they've affected humanity. We need to cultivate more like them.

Harris, Stephen A. Sunflowers. London: Reaktion, 2018.