The Overlooked Genius of Sunflowers

Sunflowers are more than just big, beautiful flowers. They also have some very unique characteristics. Sunflowers turn their blossoms toward the sun, but they do this in coordination with the angle of all other sunflowers in the field.

While most humans love the shade, especially on sunny days, sunflowers avoid shade as much as they can. Each sunflower has an innate ability to either grow more left-slanted or right-slanted.

Sunflowers only seem to fall into the clever pattern if the amount of plants growing on a field reaches a certain density. Photo Credit: Kincse_j via Pixabay cc0

Sunflowers only seem to fall into the clever pattern if the number of plants growing in a field reaches a certain density. (Image: Kincse_j via Pixabay cc0)

The well-coordinated pattern is not obvious to the observing eye when you gaze at an entire field of sunflowers, especially due to the dense leaf growth of the plants, according to statements made by scientists in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America.

However, experiments conducted by curious scientists have shown that the sun-loving plants have an almost genius way of coordinating among one another, so that every plant avoids as much shade as possible, while at the same time being exposed as much sun as possible.

The plant pattern only seems to appear if the number of plants growing in a field reaches a certain density.


For sunflowers, the process of growing into shade avoiding patterns begins at a young age. (Image: ulleo via Pixabay / CC0)

The process begins when the sunflowers are still young. Starting with the first plant growing the field, all the other plants will position their flowers in a way to benefit from the maximum exposure to direct sunlight:

  • The sunflower behind the first will bend about 10 degrees away from the shadow. This will lead to the flower behind the second to bend about 10 degrees away from the shade in the opposite direction.
  • The process will repeat throughout the whole field, creating a symmetrical pattern. This pattern allows all the plants in the field to avoid as much shade as possible.
  • Further experiments show that the yields from fields with sunflowers growing in a zig-zag pattern where 25-50 percent higher than those where the plants were artificially kept straight.

Unfortunately, commercial sunflower fields are usually populated at a density far less than the one used in the experiments, which is why the effect usually does not play a significant role in cultivated sunflower fields.

Different sunflower types show different affinities to changing their angle in relation to the shade. Scientists believe that this possibly genetically inherent behavior might be waiting to be discovered in many other plant species.

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