Sunflower Power & Health

October 10, 2016

WITH PERHAPS 25 MILLION ha (62 million acres) of sunflowers grown for seed oil worldwide, sunflower diseases and pests and their remedies have a global impact. “Sunflower oil can be used as an alternative or additive to diesel fuel to create biodiesel, a clean-burning alternative fuel produced from a renewable resource,” wrote G.J. Seiler, one of many worldwide contributing authors to the Compendium of Sunflower Diseases and Pests, a book produced by the American Phytopathological Society (APS), a scientific group whose essence includes plant doctoring, discerning what makes for healthy versus diseased plants. “Use of the product may decrease farmers’ dependence on petroleum fuels by substituting ‘farm-grown’ fuel for use in diesel engines. For use in diesel engines, sunflower oil requires more extensive purification, including removal of waxes and gums. Minor engine modifications, such as improved fuel filters, are also necessary to burn any vegetable oil. Since the energy content of sunflower oil is less than that of diesel fuel, consumption is greater and power output is less.” However, the high-protein residues leftover from sunflower oil extraction have the right amino acid balance to mix with soybean meal to grow healthy chickens and livestock, a virtuous ecological cycling of sunflower plants.

Indeed, in Argentina’s southern Pampas, if you get the planting times right, sunflower and soybean are compatible as intercrops. Working in agriculture, I observed sunflower border rows or perimeters around conventional crop fields attracting pollinators and natural enemies providing biological control of pests. However, sunflowers are so attractive to beneficial insects that they do not want to leave. Thus, sunflower stalks need vigorous shaking to get green lacewings and natural enemies of aphids and other pests to take flight into adjacent crops needing protection. At the moment, fields of GMO canola producing high quality cooking oil are displacing sunflower fields in many areas. But the APS sunflower Compendium awakened my love for sunflowers, as even the diseases afflicting the plants have a certain beauty under the microscope. So, I can see the APS sunflower Compendium serving as an outstanding library reference for biology teachers and students looking for projects in sunflower-growing areas.

R.M. Harveson opens the APS sunflower Compendium with a brilliantly concise narrative chronicling the journey of sunflower seeds from their native North America to Russia, where innovative plant breeders painstakingly created the first modern sunflower seeds high in oils, providing the platform for today’s worldwide sunflower industry. The Mennonites, an anti-violence religious group migrating from Germany (Prussia) and a war-plagued Europe to Russia in the 1780s for free farm land promised by Catharine the Great, pioneered commercial sunflower oilseed farming in a harsh landscape long thought unsuitable for even subsistence farming. Their descendants were lured to Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Canada to create North America’s sunflower industry. During World War II, when “securing the fields of Ukraine was a major objective of Adolf Hitler’s war on Russia,” sunflower oil was a superior antifreeze, lubricating World War II weapons that froze with conventional gun oils. Joe Pappalardo’s excellent and entertaining book, Sunflowers: The Secret History: The Unauthorized Biography of the World’s Most Beloved Weed (Overlook Press) adds color and specifics, and is cited in Harveson’s “Selected References” in the APS Compendium.

Personally, I love the feel on my head and hair of a shampoo blending organic sunflower oil, citrus oils and herbs; and organic sunflower seeds at breakfast supply trace minerals like zinc, which is often deficient in produce grown in local California soils. Sunflower sap, which occasionally has been used medicinally, contains terpenoid compounds that show potential as alternative botanical pesticides. As ingredients in traditional medicines, wild sunflowers have been used for everything from wound healing and rattlesnake bites to combating infection and pain relief. Modern medical uses include topical oil formulations with sunflower oil to improve skin health, fight fungal infections, relieve inflammation and itchy, dry skin, and in dentistry to improve the gums.

Seed hulls of certain sunflower varieties are traditional sources of yellow, ruby red, purple, and black dyes or colorants (e.g. anthocyanins) useful in body painting, cosmetics, foods and textiles. Indeed, some plant breeders are working on a sunflower seed that would be high in oil and have a ruby red husk or hull that could be extracted to replace commercial synthetic red food dyes. Other researchers see the hulls as useful absorbents for wastewater reclamation. But by far, sunflower seed oils (e.g. NuSun for cooking) are the main sunflower item of commerce, and even trade on the commodities futures markets. Sunflowers seeds like Mammoth Russian for eating and snacking or adding to birdseed blends are important crops, but minor compared to the large acreages of sunflower oilseeds grown worldwide.

For various reasons, sunflowers have not become commercialized as a biotech GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) crop, which makes life easier for organic growers. Though perhaps better known from Van Gogh canvases, sunflowers were experimental subjects on the USA’s Apollo space missions. And “sunflowers have been successfully used as vehicles for the phyto-remediation of soil contaminated with heavy metals and radioactive materials (e.g. following the Chernobyl disaster),” wrote Harveson. In March 2011 after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident, sunflowers and sunchokes were among the “alternative technology” plantings to concentrate and remove from soils radioactive cesium, which emits gamma rays and has a 30-year half life.

Sunchokes or Jerusalem artichokes, perennial sunflowers grown for edible tubers high in inulins, are sometimes recommended for diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, being associated with lowering blood sugar and cholesterol. Indeed, Jerusalem artichoke chips have been tested as a snack food alternative to potato chips for diabetics, being almost devoid of starch and fats. Several dozen other sunflower species are known, including one that is 92% pure natural rubber. Most likely sunchokes and other sunflower species including backyard ornamentals are subject to pests and diseases similar to those described in the APS Compendium.

To prevent pests and diseases, as a kind of insurance, perhaps 95% of commercial sunflower seeds are coated with neonicotinoid pesticides (e.g. thiamethoxam, clothianidin) at planting time, according to Michael Bredeson of South Dakota State University in Brookings at the 2015 joint meeting in Minneapolis of the Entomological Society of America (ESA), the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America. Bredeson studied 11 commercial sunflower fields, and found that “the seed treatment failed to improve yield or decrease herbivores.” In other words, quite apart from whatever effects on honey bees and beneficial organisms higher in the food chain, the neonicotinoid seed treatments are mostly a waste of resources and money. Though perhaps they do buy peace of mind for commercial sunflower growers, much like any insurance policy.

But the peace of mind bought by unnecessary early-season pesticide seed treatments may bring ecological food chain effects that cost sunflower growers more money and crop loss later in the season. The neonicotinoid pesticides may enter the food chain via plant nectar, plant tissues and predator consumption of tainted prey. Indeed, Pablo Gontijo and colleagues (2015) reported that sunflower seeds treated with thiamethoxam poisoned minute pirate bugs (Orius insidiosus), which are major predators of aphids, caterpillars, spider mites and other pests. Part of the problem is that the beneficial bugs, besides eating pests, also suck moisture directly from plants and thereby become poisoned by systemic pesticides used as sunflower seed treatments.

Likely the poisoned pirate bugs are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. At the 2015 ESA meeting, Sirilak Lankaew from RYFCRC in Rayong, Thailand reported that cassava cuttings treated preventively with thiamethoxam provided 1-2 months cassava mealybug protection at the cost of food chain effects on beneficial insects via poisoned cassava nectar. Specifically the wasp Anagyrus lopezi, a cassava mealybug natural enemy, feed on the poisoned cassava nectar and “experience acute mortality for up to 21 days after treatment, and have significantly reduced lifespan for at least 42 days after treatment.” With 8 million farming households in Thailand growing cassava and 70% of Thailand’s small-scale farmers using neonicotinoid pesticides, there is a need for alternative technologies “fully compatible with (naturally-occurring and cost-free) biological control.” In sunflower, something like the APS Compendium to identify the potential problems is a good first step towards minimizing unnecessary pesticide treatments and developing alternative technologies.

One approach to developing sunflower soils that are disease-free and avoiding seed treatments is the opposite of crop rotation. Namely growing the crop repeatedly in the same soil so that disease organisms build up and then are destroyed by natural biological agents. It is like the predator and prey cycle, where pests buildup to high levels and even cause some damage before being opportunistically exploited and knocked down by their natural enemies. This approach, known as building a disease suppressive soil, can take a few years; and is perhaps best suited to patient organic growers with the wherewithal to weather those tough early years, and possessed of a confidence, hope or faith that the natural cycles will eventually play out. Likely the Mennonites whose experiences Joe Pappalardo recounts in his book took this route in turning the barren Ukraine, Russian and Canadian lands into productive agricultural fields in the era predating intensive chemical agriculture.

Another interesting alternative technology with ancient roots is interplanting, the idea of mixing different crops in the same fields. In Pakistan, sunflowers are being considered as a healthful alternative for local cooking oil shortages via interplanting sunflowers with the staple mungbean crop. In Florida, sunflower strips have been proven to attract honey bees and a variety of predators and parasitoids supplying natural biological pest control to adjacent organic vegetables. In China, parts of Asia and Africa, and even the Americas, sunflowers are viewed as an alternative technology to reduce herbicide use. Sunflowers provide natural weed control via shading the ground and natural herbicidal compounds (allelochemicals) toxic to some of the world’s worst weeds, such as dodder and barnyard grass. Multiple benefits if you can get rid of a weed patch, produce beneficial insects and pollinators, and harvest some seeds at the same time.

The health benefits of sunflowers will likely be a key driver for this crop in the future, though medicinal sunflower benefits are far from the cutting edge of agriculture and medical research in the genomic era. Broader medical applications may involve anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular benefits, bone health, detoxification, skin protection (e.g. from light & anti-aging) and anti-cancer effects. Applied to the skin, sunflower oil formulations may reduce bacterial and fungal infections, and are touted by some for premature newborns. In Cuba a product called Oleozon, sunflower oil treated with ozone gas, was registered in 1999 to treat fungal skin diseases (tinea pedis); and can stop bacteria and viruses resistant to multiple drugs.

Interestingly, researchers in Iran writing in the Journal of Food Science and Technology like the idea of infusing highly unsaturated oils like sunflower seed oil with raspberry or related Rubus species (e.g. blackberries) as a GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) alternative to preservatives like BHA and BHT. Rubus leaves add other medicinal properties to sunflower oil, “including as astringent, hypoglycemic, anti-diarrhea, anti-inflammatory agents for mucous membrane of oral cavity (mouth) and throat.” Many other oils and herbs may have medicinal value when combined with high linoleic acid sunflower oil. Time will tell.

The whole idea of plant medicines may yet return to modern medical practices for a variety of reasons. “Extended life expectancy is accompanied with an increase in age-related pathologies that include cardiovascular and neurological diseases, obesity, and cancer, conditions that are inflicting an immense pressure on health care costs and quality of life,” write researchers Andrea Doseff and Erich Grotewold at The Ohio State University and Arti Parihar in Ujjain, India, in the book, Pigments in Fruits and Vegetables (Springer, 2015). “Thus, there has been an increased interest in recognizing and understanding the mechanisms of action of active nutritional compounds with health benefits, or nutraceuticals, for the prevention and treatment of various diseases.”

The researchers in India and Ohio note that over 8,000 flavonoid chemicals beyond vitamins have been identified, including a range of anthocyanins like those in sunflowers, “which are responsible for providing colors to fruits and vegetables, and have dietary value as color additives with potential health benefits.” Over 10,000 tons per year of anthocyanins from black grapes alone are consumed every year, and this whole general category of plant pigment compounds has “uses in the prevention and treatment of inflammatory diseases including cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and cancers.” Who knows what concentrated research into sunflowers would reveal?

Medicinal Caterpillar Fungus High in Nepal’s Himalayan Mountains

December 27, 2012

CATERPILLAR FUNGI ARE not everybody’s finger food, though their beautifully-sculpted medicinal mushrooms are rich in fiber, amino acids, minerals and vitamins. The caterpillar fungus of commerce, Cordyceps sinensis, grows high in the Himalayan Mountains in the larvae (caterpillars) of equally high-altitude Asian ghost moths (genus Hepialus). An ancient medicine or tonic, caterpillar fungus is in reality part insect (mummified caterpillar) and part fungus; and perhaps a conundrum for vegetarians, who might have to take a pass on its medical benefits because of its animal kingdom (insect) component.

Cordyceps is an abundant resource of useful natural products with various biological activity, and it has been used extensively as a tonic and health supplement for subhealth patients, especially seniors, in China and other Asian countries,” write Kai Yue and colleagues at Sichuan Agricultural University in an article pre-published online in October 2012 in the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology.

For perhaps thousands of years (at least several hundred) in China and other Asian countries, “Cordyceps sinensis (Caterpillar fungus) has been used as a tonic for longevity, endurance, and vitality,” write Chinese Academy of Sciences researchers Zhenquan Liu et al. in an Open Access journal, Behavioral and Brain Functions. “Many studies have shown that Cordyceps sinensis modulates immune responses, inhibits tumor cell proliferation, enhances hepatic function, regulates insulin sensitivity” and modulates steroid production.

“Although Cordyceps sinensis is extensively used in Chinese medicine, it lacks scientific grounds for its efficacy,” write Liu et al. In other words, it has worked like magic for centuries; providing practical benefits, though the exact mechanisms of how it works are unknown or speculative. The Chinese researchers argue that even proponents of modern medicine objecting to traditional natural or folkloric medical treatments could benefit from studying the caterpillar fungus. Their argument is that the research results from studying the mechanisms of how the caterpillar fungus works to heal or prevent disease could also be used to develop more conventional medical or drug treatments.

Caterpillar fungus could be particularly useful for certain brain strokes, where modern medicine lacks effective drugs and treatments. ”The lack of effective and widely applicable pharmacological treatments for ischemic stroke patients may explain a growing interest in traditional medicines,” wrote Liu et al. An example is “self-medication or preventive medicine” to prevent cerebral ischemia. In this type of stroke, brain oxygen levels are too low; which can trigger a cascade of biological events leading to brain damage and death. Caterpillar fungus prevents or protects against this type of brain stroke (“ischemia-induced brain infarction”), presumably by inducing or modulating production of a steroid, 17beta-estradiol.

Cordyceps sinensis mushrooms growing out of golden caterpillar bodies are sometimes artfully and decoratively displayed in high-end Chinese herbal shops. Caterpillar fungus achieved some notoriety when it was revealed to be a dietary supplement for Chinese athletes bringing home gold and silver medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“In China, this fungus is usually called ‘Dong Chong Xia Cao,’ which means ‘Worm in winter and grass in summer,’” write Kai Yue and colleagues at Sichuan Agricultural University. “This insect parasitizing fungus lives primarily on the head of the larva of one particular species of moth, Hepialus armoricanus Oberthur (Lepidoptera), but is occasionally found growing on other moth species. Cordyceps was first introduced to Western society during the 17th century. In 1878 Saccardo, an Italian scholar, named Cordyceps derived from China officially as Cordyceps sinensis (Berk.) Sacc., and this nomenclature has been adopted up to the present day.”

At a Nepal Overseas Entomologists members symposium at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting in Nov. 2012, at the Convention Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, Bhishma Subedi of the Asia Network for Sustainable Agriculture and Bioresources (ANSAB) screened a 20-30 minute documentary film as part of a talk titled, “Cordyceps sinensis a natural viagara(sic) from the mountains of Nepal.” Even the other Nepali entomologists in attendance learned something new, as the caterpillar fungus is found only in remote Himalayan Mountain locales; and it is not common knowledge, even in Nepal.

Known in Nepal by its Tibetan name, yarsagumba, caterpillar fungus is well-hidden; blending like a camouflaged black joss stick into black soils and grasses on slightly north-facing (5-10 degrees) Himalayan slopes 3,200 to 4,500 meters (10,500 to 14,800 ft) high. Yarsagumba lands are several days trek from anyplace where people normally live, and the ground is covered in snow 6 months of the year. But this is where temporary high-mountain camps must be set up for hunting the difficult-to-find caterpillar fungus.

Searching for the camouflaged black and debris-covered yarsagumba means crawling on hands and knees or bending over among short grasses and melted snow. Men search for yarsagumba and other medicinal herbs in the vicinity, while women stay behind and maintain the base camps. A certain Buddhist purity is maintained in yarsagumba lands; there is no alcohol, no tobacco and no shouting, loud voices or arguing. People pray, and the first yarsagumba found is offered to the Gods.

The beauty of the mountains belie the harshness of the climate and the difficulty of the life in search of yarsagumba; it’s a tough way to earn money in these remote mountains where economic opportunities are few. Storms can come at any time, and it is easy to fall down a steep cliff when climbing in the snow. A fall near a cliff edge can mean loss of limbs and frequently death. There are no second chances, no safety nets to catch you up here. Medical treatment is do-it-yourself, by necessity. Conventional medicine and doctors are many days distant. Widows are commonplace at all ages; and many subsistence families in Nepal have lost husbands, fathers, brothers and sons during the search for yarsagumba and medicinal herbs that may help others prevail against brain strokes and other maladies.

It takes seven cleanings with a toothbrush to remove all the debris and black soil, and make the black yarsagumba look like a proper insect, namely a golden caterpillar. The going price from the middlemen is 80,000 rupees per kilo; with 3,500 to 4,000 pieces of clean golden caterpillars per kilo. It takes five people a month to find a kilo. People are doing well to come out of the season with 60,000 rupees, before the expenses of the trek and weeks or months of camp costs. Recently, the Nepal government imposed a 20,000 rupee per kilo tax or royalty on the trade.

After being steamed and packaged, most of the yarsagumba eventually is exported and finds its way to the Chinese market. The yarsagumba trade is estimated at 2 tons annually. But in Nepal, since the government-imposed 20,000 rupee/kilo royalty or tax went into effect, it was like the yarsagumba harvest had become illegal for Nepal’s subsistence mountain people. Royalties were paid on only 3 kilos in a recent year. Perhaps there is a free market and tax lesson in all this. Or perhaps it is just part of the great wheel of life.