Sunflowers - a Native Plant with an Amazing History


Marion Barnes, Senior County Extension Agent

Clemson University

If you have traveled around the county lately you may have noticed numerous fields of brightly colored, yellow blooming sunflowers. To my knowledge there is not a single field of sunflowers planted for commercial purposes such as oil or birdseed production in this county; however, there are numerous sunflower fields planted for attract mourning doves in time for the September hunting season. The story of the cultivated sunflower, Helianthus annuus is truly amazing, because it is one of the few crops to have been domesticated in North America. The name is derived from the Greek words Helious meaning sun and anthos meaning flower, thus the name sunflower. The species name annuus refers to the plant’s annual life cycle. Evidence suggest that wild sunflower plants were cultivated by Native Americans in what is now present day New Mexico and Arizona about 3000 B.C., with some archaeologists even suggesting the sunflower plant may have been domesticated before the corn plant. The wild multi-branched, multi-headed, tiny seeded sunflower looked quite different from the single headed, single stalk, large seeded sunflower we are familiar with today. Through selection for larger seed, those early Native American “plant breeders” are credited with increasing seed size by 1000 percent.

The seeds of wild sunflowers were gathered by Native Americans for use as food, and the plants and flower heads were often used medicinally or ceremonially. The Aztecs of Peru were said to have worshiped sunflowers and placed sunflower images made of gold on their temples and crowned their princesses with the bright yellow flowers. Native Americans used sunflowers in many ways, including making bread and cakes from crushed, ground seed, mixing the meal with vegetables such as corn, beans, and squash, and eating the cracked seed as a snack much like we do today. Sunflower seeds were also a good source of fats for their diets that were comprised largely of lean meats. A type of butter was made into “seed-balls”, similar to peanut butter and used as a food source to eat on the go. A type of coffee-like beverage was made by steeping roasted sunflower hulls in boiling water. Oils from the seed were thought to be used in the breadmaking process, also.

Non-food uses included yellow and purple pigments used for dyes for coloring textiles, pottery and body painting. Medicinal uses of the sunflower plant ranged from wart removal, sunstroke treatment, snake bite remedies, body ointments, cauterization and healing of wounds, to treatment of chest pains. Dried stalks were even used as a type of building material by some tribes.

The history of sunflowers takes an important and interesting turn-of-events with its introduction into Europe. It is believed that sunflower seed from North America was first brought to Europe by returning Spanish explorers around 1500, and records indicate its establishment in ornamental gardens in Madrid, Spain around 1510. Later, sunflowers were introduced into Europe from the New World by the English and French.

As sunflowers spread through Europe they were used for ornamental plantings and the seed eaten as a delicacy. The British cultivated sunflowers as an oil crop in the early 1700’s and a patent was issued for extraction of the oil from the seed in 1716. The Tsar of Russia, “Peter the Great” is credited with introducing sunflowers in Russia after having reportedly seen the plant in Holland. By the early nineteenth century, Russia had recognized the sunflowers’ potential as a vegetable oil and a food for human consumption. Selection programs identified two specific types of sunflowers: oil type for oil production and a large seeded type for human consumption. Government breeding programs were implemented, and soon Russian farmers were growing millions of acres of sunflowers. By the late nineteenth century, it is believed Russian immigrates were responsible for the re-introduction of improved sunflower varieties such as Mammoth Russian or Giant Russian into the United States. The Canadian government started a sunflower breeding program in 1930 with plant material derived from the gardens of Mennonite immigrants from Russia. Thirty-four years later in 1964 the Canadian government licensed the Russian cultivar called Peredovik. This cultivar produced higher yields and higher oil content. As commercial interest in the production of sunflower oil increased, so did sunflower acreage in the United States. The hybridization of sunflower varieties in the 1970’s led to additional increase in yield, higher oil content and greater disease resistance. Today, sunflower varieties are being used that were bred specifically to tolerate certain herbicides that deliver broad-spectrum grass and broadleaf weed control options for farmers. The gene that led to the development of this latest technology came from a wild sunflower, which is considered a weed in commercial sunflower production areas of the country. This trait was developed through a breeding program utilizing the wild sunflowers and non-GMO (genetically modified organism) plant breeding procedures.

Farmers in the United States planted around 1.38 million areas of sunflowers in 2019 for seed and oil production, down substantially from the peak sunflower production years of the late 1970’s when more than 5 million acres were planted due to strong European demand for sunflower oil. However, many experts are predicting a sunny future for sunflowers. As consumers becomes more health conscious and seek to reduce the amount of saturated fats in their diet, demand for sunflower oil and products should increase, since sunflowers are naturally free of trans fats and low in saturated fatty acids.

The next time you pass a field of sunflowers take a few moments think about the amazing transformation from its wild ancestor which originated in North America and its journey to Europe, Russia and back to the United States where it plays such an important role in modern agriculture, food production and wildlife management.

If you have questions about growing sunflowers contact the Colleton County Clemson Extension Office.

Information for this article was taken in part from the National Sunflower Association article, History of the Amazing Sunflower, The Origin and Development of the Cultivated Sunflower by Charles B. Heiser Jr. , Department of Botany, Indiana University and Sunflowers: Origin and Usage by Native Americans, Part I & II by Robert M. Harveson, Extension Plant Pathologist, University of Nebraska, Panhandle REC, ScottsBluff StarHerald