History of the Sunflower

History of the Sunflower

Sunflowers originated in the Americas in 1000B.C. where, for centuries, they were cultivated as a valuable food source. The use of sunflower images as religious symbols has also been documented in some native societies.

As a native plant of North American no other plant has such global significance as the sunflower. From its beginning as a prairie weed, the sunflower is now one of the world’s leading oil seed crops, second only to soybeans. Early American natives used the sunflower long before corn and beans were brought to America. They ate the seeds, ground the small kernels into flour, extracted oil from seeds for their hair, and used the seeds, flower petals, and pollen to make dyes for face paint, cloths and baskets. Medicinal uses included everything from wart removal to snake bite treatment to sunstroke treatment. In Peru, the Aztecs worshiped sunflowers, they placed sunflower images made of gold in their temples and crowned princesses in the bright yellow flowers.

With the European exploration of the New World, the sunflower was brought to new areas, and the flower's popularity eventually spread as the rest of the world began to appreciate its beauty and sustenance. Artists throughout history have appreciated the sunflower's unique splendor, and those of the Impressionist era were especially fixated on the flower. Sunflowers were often used for gifts carried by Spanish settlers returning home. The great Russian ruler Peter the Great liked sunflowers so much when he saw them in Holland he took seeds back to Russia. By the 1700’s sunflower seeds were being eaten all over Russia.

In 1966, an open pollinated Russian sunflower was brought to the United States. The Russian sunflower and others began the first sustained U.S. production of oil seed sunflowers. Some of the states with the highest growth output include North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas, and Texas. The former Soviet Union has the largest number of sunflower acres in the world second to Argentina.

Throughout the world folk medicine has depended on the sunflower for the oil in the seeds for coughs and teas made from stem parts. In many parts of Europe sunflowers provide leaves for smoking, flower buds for salads, flowers for dyes, and oil for cooking.

Commercial sunflower crops are of two types. One is to produce edible seeds and the other is oil seed crops. The large grey striped seeds used for eating make about 25% of sunflower crops and the other 75% is for sunflower oil. Worldwide more than five million metric tons of sunflowers seeds are grown each year. The best varieties developed in Russia contain about 50% oil and are superior quality for cooking. The oil from sunflower seeds is low in saturated fats and high in polyunsaturated fats.

In the last 13 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 "pollen-less" varieties bred for their use as cut flowers.

The tallest sunflower grown on record was 25 feet tall and was grown in the Netherlands.

The largest sunflower head on record measured 32 1/2 inches across its widest point and was grown in Canada.

The shortest mature sunflower on record was just over 2 inches tall and was grown in Oregon using the Bonsai technique.