Last edited on 1998-01-17 07:52:44 by stolfi

Is f33v a sunflower?

The short answer:


The long story:

Brumbaugh's identification

The plant depicted on page f33v of the Voynich manuscript has been identified as a sunflower (Helianthus annuus), by Brumbaugh and others. Since the sunflower is native from America, this "fact" has been used as proof that the book was written in the early 1500's---and not in the late 1400's, as the handwriting would otherwise indicate.

Unfortunately, the resemblance of f33v to a sunflower is quite superficial. A careful comparison (below) reveals more differences than resemblances.

In fact, the identification of f33v was apparently based on certain features, such as large cores and small petals, that are characteristic of modern breeds, and not of the variety available in the 16th century.

The common sunflower

The cultivated variety of H. annuus is quite common all over the world. Around here it is often seen growing in yards and vacant lots, presumably because sunflower seeds are a popular bird food. Here are some pictures:

sunflower     sunflowwer     sunflowers painting
J. Stolfi     P. Haeberli     C. Monet

By the way, the sunflower is technically not a flower but an inflorescence. The "core" consists of thousands of small flowers (florets); each "petal" is actually a modified floret with fused oversize petals, the "sepals" are modified leaves (bracts), and each "seed" is actually a complete fruit. But I will generally ignore these technicalities in this page, and use the words "flower", "calyx", etc. in the naďve sense.

The wild sunflower

The images above are inadequate, because they show modern cultivated sunflowers, which have been bred for higher seed yield, fewer and bigger flowers, straight trunk, etc.. The drawing on page f33v should be compared instead with the variety that was brought to Europe in the 15th-16th century.

That was probably the variety domesticated by North American Indians, which must have been intermediate between the modern cultivars and the wild H. annuus---which is still a common "weed" in the US:

wild sunflower     wild sunflower     wild sunflower
U. of Illinois     P. Slichter     P. Slichter


A few details of f33v seem to match those of real sunflowers:

Calyx shape: f33v calyx H.annuus calyx Flat, round, with rounded edges.
Petal size: f33v petal H.annuus petals Small, relative to core radius.
Sepals: f33v petals H.annuus petals Thin, pointed, and pale green; they can be seen between the relatively sparse petals.
Flower stalks: f33v stalks H.annuus stalks Long, pale-green, branching off diagonally from the top of the trunk.

However, some caveats are in order:

Calyx shape: f33v calyx 2 f33v flowerbud Only one of the flowers in f33v has a "sunflowerish" calyx; the other two have a conical calyx.
Petal size: wild core 1 wild core 2 The large core is characteristic of modern breeds; wild varieties have a relatively small core.

So two of the four "positive" points are dubious to say the least.


And now let's look at many details that don't match:

f33v plant Real sunflower
Petal color: f33v petals Purple-black, with white edges. H. annuus petals Golden yellow.
Core color: f33v core Light yellow with white markings. H. annuus core Dark yellow, brown, or purplish-brown.
Petal shape: f33v petals Weird double-pointed shape. H. annuus petals Simple "spearpoint" shape.
Core texture: f33v core Coarse "scale" pattern. H. annuus core Fine "pineapple" pattern, often with a light raised ring.
Leaf shape: f33v leaf Star-shaped, with 10-12 rays ending in round buttons. H. annuus leaf Heart- or spade-shaped.
Leaf stem: f33v leaf Attached under the leaf's center. Note pale spot on top side. H. annuus leaf Attached at edge of leaf.
Tubers: f33v tuber Round, brown, studded with blunt, whitish "spikes" (root stumps?). H. annuus tuber No tubers, AFAIK.

In view of all these mismatches, and especially the difference in leaf shape, I think that the identification of f33v with a sunflower is untenable.

The mistake is understandable, since the sunflower is the only common flower with a flat calyx and short petals. Thus, a lay person will automatically "see" a sunflower when confronted with these two features. I presume that this is the origin of the "sunflower" theory, and the reason why the identification has been accepted so uncritically by the Voynich community.

The Jerusalem artichoke

Ok, f33v is not the common sunflower; but could it be some relative?

If we take "relative" to mean "same genus", then we have some 50 Helianthus species to consider, all native from the New World.

Besides the common sunflower H. annuus, the only species of some importance seem to be H. tuberosus, commonly known as the Jerusalem artichoke. (The name "Jerusalem" is apparently a corruption of the Italian name "girasole" = "sunflower").

H tuberosus     H tuberosus     H tuberosus
MPIZ, Köln     WSSA, UIUC     C. Monet

As the name says, H. tuberosus is a perennial plant with tubers, and therefore a promising candidate for f33v. (Indeed, H.tuberosus was already cultivated by the American Indians, like H. annuus---but for its tubers rather than its seeds.)

However, its tubers are elongated, and rather small in proportion to the plant. As for the leaves, they are somewhat narrower than those of the common sunflower, but are lance- or spade-shaped, with the stem attached at the edge. Moreover, the flowers of H. tuberosus have smaller cores than those of H. annuus, and thus look less "sunflowerish".

In summary, by proposing that f33v is a Jerusalem artichoke, we remove only one negative point (the tubers), but lose the principal positive point (the basic flower shape).

Other Helianthus species

If we turn to other Helianthus species, the mismatch with f33v gets only worse.

All those species are wild North American plants. I found images of a few of them. Their flowers have proportionally smaller cores than the common sunflower, so they look more like yellow daisies than sunflowers. Their leaves are all lance- or spade-shaped, usually narrower than those of H. annuus; none shows anything remotely similar to the multi-fingered leaves of f33v.

Assuming those few species are typical of the genus, we can say with some confidence that f33v is not any Helianthus species.

Other genera

The plant in f33v could be a more distant relative of the sunflower, namely some member of the family Asteraceae (which inludes the daisy, dahlia, chrysanthemum, chamomille, dandelion, etc.). However, that family includes many plants that are native from Europe, Asia or Africa. So, merely assigning f33v to the Asteraceae does not impose any geographic or chronological constraint on the Vms.