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Musings on Nature blog


As an old farm boy, I couldn’t help but take notice of what farmers were growing while I prowled around 15 western states this summer. I saw several fields of sunflowers in Montana and the Dakotas, but they were most numerous in eastern Nebraska. As I gazed on these fields, I thought of the convoluted route this all-American wildflower — or is it a weed? — took before it became a part of the world’s food basket.

Field of sunflowers.
PEOPLE OF THE SUN — This sunflower field in eastern Nebraska reminded me that the back story behind our domesticated crops is seldom straight forward. (Image courtesy Gerald Klingaman.)

Sunflower (Helianthus annus) is a fast growing annual that probably originated in the central part of North America. But when European explorers arrived, they found the single-headed variant form being cultivated by Native Americans everywhere they looked. Native American tribes have grown sunflowers for at least 5,000 years but it was not as important as the “three sisters” – squash, corn and beans. Seeds of this single-headed form — for in nature sunflower branches freely and has lots of smaller, teacup sized flower heads — were sent back to Spain as early as 1510, where it was grown in gardens as a novelty plant.

It remained as a flower garden novelty and, in rural areas, was grown as a nutritious poultry food until it had its breakout moment. The sunflower’s rise to agricultural stardom was due to religion. The early 19th century Russian Orthodox Church was extremely conservative and tradition-bound. The leadership of the church developed lists of forbidden foods during the 40 days leading up to Lent and Christmas. Most sources of animal and plant oils were on the list. But, because sunflower was a new arrival, it was overlooked. Russian and Ukrainian farmers began growing it for the seeds that could be pressed for their oil.

Russian and Ukrainian agriculturists began working with the crop and developed two distinct lines: those grown for oil and lines grown for large nutty kernels good for snacks and use in confections. In the 1880s many Ukrainian and Russian Mennonite farmers migrated to the northern Great Plains on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. Sunflower seeds was one of the crops they brought with them, bringing the plant back home after being sent off to finishing school in the Old World.  

The Russian scientist Vasilli Stepanovich Pustovoit (1886 – 1972) worked on sunflower breeding from the 1920s until his death and is considered the most important figure in sunflower breeding. During his lifetime, oil content of sunflowers rose from about 28 percent to over 50 percent. About the time of Pustovoit’s death, French and American scientists figured out how to use male sterility techniques to create hybrid sunflower lines, thus incorporating disease resistance, drought tolerance and height control into cultivars. During the early years of this century, herbicide resistance was added using GMO techniques.

About the time hybrid sunflower cultivars were being developed, consumers became aware of the benefits of non-saturated fats and sunflower oil became more popular, especially in Europe. Today sunflower oil is the fourth most important crop oil behind palm, soybean and canola.

The United States is not very important in sunflower production, ranking tenth in the world. Ukraine, Russia, Argentina, Romania and China are the top producers, but Ukrainian and Russian farmers alone produce more than half of the world supply. Most of the black oil sunflower seeds we feed our cardinals is grown in Ukraine, the little county that today is fighting off the Russian bear.

Though it is but a footnote in the saga of the sunflower, this all-American plant has reclaimed a place in the flower garden. In the 1990s seed houses began introducing all kinds of smaller flowered, multi-colored sunflower cultivars for the flower garden and cut flower market. Today it is common to see sunflowers in elaborate florist arrangements and for sale at farmers markets across the land.