Voyagers to Tuscany identify the sunflower with the Tuscan lifestyle. They see it as a romantic symbol, overwhelmed by vast fields of sunflowers in the summer sun. They will come home with pasta bowls, dresses or tiles decorated with them. But they forget one simple fact: girasole (sunflowers) are actually a cash crop in Italy, and several regions grow them, not just Tuscany. And don't count on seeing sunflowers in the same fields every year. Italians farmers, like all good farmers, tend to rotate their crops. Sunflowers grown in a particular field one year might be replaced by beans the next. It also depends on whether the Italian government is subsidizing the sunflower crop or not.
By the way, the word "girasole", literally means "turn to the sun", which is what sunflowers do--they always tend to face the sun and follow it from sunrise to sunset.
In northern regions or in higher elevations, the sunflower bloom will be later, but in general (depending on variety grown and the weather), in Tuscany the height of the spectacular display will be from the beginning of July to the about July 15th. In Lazio you can see the yellow beauties in the beginning of July, in le Marche the best time to see them is mid-July to early August. Sunflowers are also grown in the regions of Emilia Romagna, Umbria, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia
Sunflower seeds are grown for the seeds as food and for oil. They can be eaten raw, roasted or dried. They containing protein, vitamins A, B, and E, calcium, iron and nitrogen. Sunflower oil has a light color, mild flavor and low levels of saturated fats. Chefs love it because of its high smoke point--it doesn't burn as readily as other oils--and because it doesn't impart much of its own flavor. Sunflower oil accounts for 8% of the cooking oil used in the whole world.
Consider this: Even with its own high production of sunflowers, the Italian supply doesn't come close to meeting Italy's demand fo oil and seeds. Italy imports as much as 70% from the crop's main producers--Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria. If things go the way they have been going, the sunflower crop might be in desperate trouble. Production has dropped from 500,000 planted acres in 2003 to less than 175,000 acres in 2017. Market prices and lack of government subsidies have a lot to do with the shrinking harvests.
So the next time you are cycling through fields of girasole, turn your head to the sun as they do, and say a little prayer for the sunflower to continue to brighten the beauty of Italy.
Watch the videos below to see how sunflowers
are grown, harvested and turned into oil...