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Sunflower: America's Sunny Export
Helianthus annuus


Sunflowers close up

The sunny-faced sunflower, Helianthus annuus, is an American species that today can be found in all fifty states and around the globe. Its wide distribution has made it hard to pinpoint its original American distribution, but botanists, anthropologists, and ecologists believe the sunflower’s epicenter is somewhere in the vast Great Plains. It is believed that as early as 3,000-4,000 years ago, Native Indians were unknowingly selecting seeds for eventual domestication by the simple act of gathering and eating sunflower seeds from the wild.  Tinier wild sunflower seeds from multiple branched sunflowers just like the wild sunflowers you can still see in the parts of the United States, eventually mutated to give rise to a single-stalked sunflower with one larger flower and larger seeds. This all took place somewhere in America before to the Spanish and French explorers arrived.

Sunflower map

American Indians used the seeds, botanically called achenes, for sunflower cakes made from ground, roasted seeds, and sometimes combined with corn to make simple bread. They also used the juice of the plant itself as a remedy for cuts. The yellow dye for the flower petals and a purplish dye from the seed were used as ceremonial dyes. The Indians also prized the oil of the seed which they used for cooking and as a base for the their ceremonial dyes.

Scientists believe the epicenter of the cultivated sunflower is somewhere in middle America, east of the Plains in the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Ohio. Eventually, sunflowers were grown far away from its epicenter and were in common use by the American Indians before colonization—by the Hopis of the New Mexico, the Mandans of Minnesota, as well as the East Coast Indians, far into Canada.

But the sunflower of the American Indian is not the mammoth commercialized sunflower that most people think of when they think about sunflowers. In the beginning the sunflower’s head was much smaller. The early explorers, the Spanish, English and French, all took the sunflower home to their native lands. From there, this sunny export was transported along ancient travel routes to the rest of the world. One place the sunflower really took hold was in the former Soviet Union.


Peter the Great


There, long before communism made religion almost impossible to practice for 70 years, the Russian Orthodox Church played a major role in the sunflower’s development. The orthodox faith has dietary restrictions that included refraining from eating meat and dairy—which includes butter and animal fats used for frying such as lard, during Lent and 40 days before Christmas. The oil of the sunflower was an acceptable replacement—and hence came under widespread cultivation there.

The Ukraine became the epicenter for the Soviet Union’s efforts to make bigger and more oil containing sunflowers which led to the creation, through cross breeding and selection, of what came to be called the Mammoth Russian sunflower. It was not really Russian at all—but Ukrainian. Ukrainians hold the sunflower near and dear. It is not only grown there but given a reverent position in home gardens and the sunflower is a popular design element on pottery and tableware.

The giant sunflower perfected in the Ukraine is the one commonly referred to as the commercial sunflower. It is the one of the world’s most important sources of oil. Fields of sunny sunflowers can be found all over the world. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the world’s No. 1 producer of sunflower oil. Sunflower oil is the official oil for Bulgarian cuisine, even though Greek olive oil is so close by. This probably grew out of Bulgaria’s close historical ties with the Russia, as the Russians helped liberate the Bulgarians from Ottoman rule in the late 1880s. Bulgarian’s also love sunflower seeds and you can see them being sold on street corners everywhere. They also package and sell a fine sunflower seed butter.

But the most amazing thing to me is that the sunflower has come full circle and has been repatriated to the Americas. Argentina is now the No. 1 sunflower oil producing country in the world. Out in Kansas, if you know where to go you can find wild sunflowers growing in the ditches near fields of their tall cousin, or some might say offspring, the giant imported commercial sunflower. The town of Goodland is the epicenter of commercial sunflower production in Kansas. I am told if you go to Goodland in late fall , any direction you drive you will find fields of sunflowers. To claim its heritage in a grand way, the town has commissioned an artist to paint a giant reproduction of one of Van Gogh’s famous sunflower painting on an 80-foot easel in the town park.

Over the course of the last four centuries, sunflowers have been immortalized in paint, photograph and poem, in addition to food. In France, they have the name tournesol—which means “turning with the sun.” The sunflower is an often-visited showy theme for painters. Van Gogh immortalized the sunflowers of Arles in Provence with his paintings Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers.

Ironically, although sunflowers are the state flower of Kansas, for the most part they are underappreciated at their origin. Sunflower cultivation in the America is definitely outpaced by crops such as Chinese-origin soybeans and corn, which are both oil sources as well. Likewise, sunflower seeds are not as popular snack food or ingredient as African-origin peanuts. But USDA scientists are actively trying to promote sunbutter, an alternative to peanut butter and it may soon be a commodity in the school lunch program due to replace peanut butter, which many children are allergic to.


Photo credit

Top photo: Courtesy ARS/USDA photo gallery, No. K4878-14, sunflowers, by Edward McCain.