Sunflowers: From Native American Staple to Modern Garden Favorite

With the increasing interest in ornamental sunflowers and several million acres of land devoted to oilseed production, it's hard to imagine sunflowers as an unpopular plant. The sunflower is one of only four major crops of global importance native to the United States (blueberry, cranberry, and pecan are the other three).

Native Americans in the U.S. have been using wild sunflower for food and medicine for at least 8,000 years. Archeological evidence suggests that Native Americans began cultivating and improving the sunflower as early as 2300 B.C. Thus, sunflower cultivation may predate cultivation of the "Three Sisters" of corn, beans and squash. The seeds of sunflower were usually roasted and ground into a fine meal for baking or used to thicken soups and stews. "Seed-balls", similar to peanut butter, made from sunflower butter made a convenient carry-along food for traveling. Roasted sunflower hulls were steeped in boiling water to make a coffee-like beverage. Dye was extracted from hulls and petals. Face paint was made from dried petals and pollen. Oil, extracted from the ground seeds by boiling, provided many tribes with cooking oil and hair treatment. Medicinal uses included everything from wart removal to snake bite treatment to sunstroke treatment.

When the colonists and explorers sent seed from the New World back to Europe, the sunflower was treated mainly as a curiosity and a garden flower. It was not used as an edible crop again until it reached Russia. In Russia, the Holy Orthodox Church forbade the use of many foods, including many rich in oil, during Lent and Advent. The Russians eagerly accepted the sunflower as an oil source that could be eaten without breaking the laws of the church. Russians also enjoyed sunflowers as a snack food. In the past 50 years, Russians have bred sunflowers for high oil content and improved disease resistance. In 1966, an open pollinated Russian bred cultivar was introduced into the U.S. This and other cultivars began the first sustained U.S. commercial production of the oil seed type of sunflower.

Hybrid sunflowers now dominate commercial production as well as ornamental sunflower varieties. Two researchers stand out as responsible for saving several open pollinated sunflowers. Charles Heiser, a retired botanist at Indiana University, is often referred to as "Mr. Sunflower" for his lifelong research on sunflower. His 1951 article is perhaps the most complete coverage of varieties cultivated by Native Americans. The seed he collected during his research career has been deposited in the USDA-Agricultural Research Service Plant Introduction Station at Iowa State University. This repository has over 2,000 sunflower varieties from around the world. Another individual, Gary Nabhan, was contracted by the USDA-ARS in the 1970's to obtain Native American sunflower varieties. Thanks to him, the USDA-ARS collection now has over 20 sunflower varieties from Southwestern tribes. He subsequently founded Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit seed conservation organization which makes Native American crop seeds available to the public. At least 30 Native American sunflower varieties have been preserved through the USDA-ARS, Native Seeds/SEARCH, Seed Savers Exchange (in Decorah, IA), or private seed companies.

Unfortunately, many varieties have not yet been located and may be extinct. One variety that has survived over time is 'Mammoth Russian'. It has been offered by seed companies for at least 120 years. It is known by many names such as 'Russian Giant', 'Tall Russian', 'Russian Greystripe', or simply 'Mammoth'. An ornamental variety that has survived is Helianthus debilis 'Italian White'. The sunflower gets its name from the Greek words helios meaning sun and anthos meaning flower. There are some 67 species within the Helianthus genus. Most oilseed and ornamental sunflowers are Helianthus annuus. In the last 10 years, three new types of sunflowers have been introduced into the North American market. The first new type has a sturdy central stem that produces multiple branches with many flowers. The result is a showy garden plant that is excellent for cutting. Staking is not required. The second type is a dwarf plant that reaches only 1 to 2 feet tall. These dwarf varieties are wonderful for use in small gardens and containers. The third type is the "pollenless" varieties bred for their use as cutflowers. Sunflower pollen stains just about anything the pollen contacts thus limiting their use as a cut flower. The pollenless types are cleaner and have a longer shelf life making them excellent cut flowers. Though seed may be produced on these new types, it is not large enough to bother saving.

Sunflowers are easy to grow provided they have direct sun. Well-prepared, fertile soil will yield large flower heads and the meatiest seeds. Young seedlings can withstand light frosts so seeds can be planted before May 1. Tall growing varieties should be thinned to stand 2 to 2 1/2 feet apart in the garden and staked to help support the seedhead under windy conditions. With the wide assortment of old and new sunflower varieties available, surely one or more will find a way into your garden this spring.

This article originally appeared in the April 26, 1996 issue, pp. , 1996 issue, pp. 58-59.


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