So simple: one big flower on a stem. So complex: each flower holds hundreds of seeds and each seed holds countless genes. Within the simple North American sunflower lay the genetic material that allowed humans to develop the species into a worldwide crop. Here's a brief history of Helianthus annuus, from its roots as a wildflower to its current status as an important agricultural species.
It began with an offhand question -- "Where do they come from?"-- from my son as he pondered my sunflower patch. I realized I didn't know what country sunflowers originally called home, or much else about sunflowers. I hadn't given them much thought at all. I grew them for their down-home charm and bird-attracting qualities. My research answered my son's question and also led me to lots of thought-provoking information about this flower.
First I should specify which "sunflower" I'm about to describe. The word sunflower appears in a bunch of common flower names, like "false sunflower" and "cucumberleaf sunflower". This article is about the classic tall, large-flowered Helianthus annuus. One stately stem topped with a huge daisy-like yellow flower with a big, seed bearing center is a familiar image. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Centercalls these sunflowers one of America's most common wildflowers. Sunflowers have the unique ability to turn their flowers and keep them facing somewhat sideways and towards the sun. This is a great quality in a bloom that often towers over one's head.
Archeologists discovered that humans and Helianthus annuus have a long history in the Midwest and Southwest regions of the United States. Native peoples cultivated the species thousands of years ago. Even before today's sophisticated analyses, sunflower nutrition was recognized. The humans' primary need for sunflowers may well have been as a food, but as it seems with so many cultivated plants, other uses were devised. Resourceful people, living with only what they could grow or make, used parts of sunflowers to make medicines, dyes and fiber. Simply planting sunflowers near the home was at one time even thought to prevent malaria.
Eventually, Native Americans shared this versatile seed with newcomers to the continent. This wasn't the metallic gold that European explorers had hoped for. And I'm sure they had no idea of the long-term investment possibilites that golden sunflowers presented. The Europeans did recognize that sunflower seeds were worth eating and sharing with the "folks back home." Germany developed a traditional sunflower kernel bread, and other countries in that area are also fond of sunflower seeds. Mediterranean snackers favor eating sunflower seeds from the shell.
Freshly-cut garden sunflowers seem to have been popular in Holland by 1888 when Vincent Van Gogh created his famous "Vase with Twelve Sunflowers" still life. (Actually there were four similar paintings.) His Sunflower series of paintings may show that at least a few different cultivars existed then in the garden trade, or the casual trading between gardening friends.
The lovely blossom of cultivar "Italian White"--photo courtesy of westocast73
Seed catalogs from the late 1800's list a 'Mammoth Russian', or simply 'Mammoth' cultivar. How did an American wildlfower end up with "Russian" in its name? Before the Soviets and communism, there was the Russian Holy Orthodox Church. At one time this church restriced the diet of its followers during Lent and Advent. Church members found that sunflower seeds and oil were allowed under those restrictions. Demand for sunflowers of course then rose. This started Russia on the path to breeding sunflowers for agriculture. Their high-yield, single-headed variety became the gold standard of large sunflowers for seed production.
In 1966, the USSR released an open-pollinated variety for international use, and since then a lot of lab hours and dollars have gone into refining the sunflower's qualities. Hybridization has progressed in a few different directions for Helianthus annuus. Black oil sunflowers are popular as a specialty wild bird food, but more significantly are harvested to produce sunflower oil, a major commodity on today's world market. Striped-seed cultivars yield "confectionary" sunflower seed, used as human and bird food around the globe. Other sunflowers are selected for a variety of colors and forms and marketed as decorative garden sunflowers.
The sunflower's short growing season (three months), ruggedness and adaptability allow it to be grown in countries all over Europe, Asia and the Americas. Countries from all those continents also import and export sunflower products. Russia still leads the world in sunflower seed production. North Dakota alone grew half of 2007's total United States sunflower crop. (I'm afraid North Dakota's billion and a half pound crop seems skimpy compared to the Russian Federations's output of over 12 trillion pounds.)
Dubious anti-malarial properties aside, people of years past were smart to view sunflower seeds as a good food. Modern science has shown these seeds to be loaded with good stuff. Care for a snack with as much protein as beef and high in iron? Maybe you need to boost your potassium intake, and you wouldn't mind some extra minerals and vitamins at the same time. And you know we need those essential fatty acids too. The true worth of edible sunflower seeds in our diet will guarantee them a place in international markets.
The black oil sunflower crop is quickly increasing in value. Edible sunflower oil has unique chemistry making it a very healthy oil. And through breeding, the oil produced can be somewhat tailored for different uses. Of course, these petroleum-starved days, you can't read "plant"' and "oil" in the same sentence without wondering about the biodiesel potential. Yes, sunflower oil use as a diesel substitute is being actively investigated. After pressing the oil out of the seed, the cakey remainder is called 'sunflower meal' and is used in animal feed.
'Moonshadow' -- photo by zest
'Razzmatazz' -- photo by buttoneer
unknown double formcultivar from traded seed -- photo by nanniepb
At the end of the day, in the literal sense, we can all use a pretty flower. Beautiful garden Helianthus annuus now comes in a wide assortment of colors, in hues covering the range from creamy yellow through gold and into maroons. You get your choice of single stems or branching plants. Go for really tall, or keep them short; double petals are an option too. Dave's Garden Plantfiles has a long list of these lovelies. It seems like the only thing a sunflower can't do is give you a blue flower. (Seeds that tastes bad to squirrels would be nice too.)
Who knew a simple sunflower could lead me on such a winding path? And this path led me back to my own little patch of sunflowers, snacking seeds in hand and a world of sunflower facts on my brain. Oh, son, what was your question?
Click your "back" button and read today's complementary article, "Sunflowers as Sentinels" by Summer Walla.
Field of sunflowers picture by Carol Southard and shown at Morguefile.com. The picture was taken at Buttonwood Farm. Follow that link to find out what they do with thousands of sunflower bouquets.
Sunflower cultivar pictures from Plantfiles courtesy of the named DG members.Wild sunflower picture courtesy of Jeff_Beck. Thumbnail photo taken by the author. See many more sunflower pictures in Plantfiles.
Special thanks to my favorite 17-year-old young man, for article inspiration.
About Sally G. Miller
I grew up playing in the Maryland woods, and would still do it often if life allowed! Graduate of University of Maryland, my degree is in Agriculture. Gardens and natural areas give me endless opportunity for learning and wonder. Naturally (pun intended) my garden style leans towards the casual, and my cultural methods towards organic. I like to try new plants, and have "some of everything" in my indoor and outdoor gardens. Thanks go to my parents for passing along their love of gardening and nature, and my husband and kids for being patient when I get lost in the garden.