Sunflowers – a native plant with an amazing history

Marion Barnes, Senior County Extension Officer

Clemson University

If you’ve been traveling to the county lately, you may have noticed plenty of fields of brightly colored sunflowers and yellow flowers. To my knowledge, there is not a single field of sunflowers planted for commercial purposes such as the production of oil or bird seed in this county; However, many fields of sunflowers are planted to attract mourning doves in time for the September hunting season. The story of the cultivated sunflower, Helianthus annuus, is truly astonishing, as 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, hence the name sunflower. The species name annuus refers to the annual life cycle of the plant. Evidence suggests that wild sunflower plants were cultivated by Native Americans in what is now New Mexico and Arizona around 3000 BC, with some archaeologists even suggesting that the sunflower plant may have been domesticated before the corn plant. The wild multi-branched, multi-headed, and tiny-seeded sunflower was very different from the single-headed, single-stemmed, large-seeded sunflower we know today. Through the selection of larger seeds, these early Native American “plant breeders” are credited with a 1000 percent increase in seed size.

The seeds of wild sunflowers were gathered by Native Americans for use as food, and the plants and flower heads were often used for medicinal or ritual purposes. The Aztecs of Peru are said to have worshiped sunflowers and placed golden sunflower images on their temples and crowned their princesses with bright yellow flowers. Native Americans used sunflowers in several ways, including making bread and cakes from crushed and crushed seeds, mixing the meal with vegetables such as corn, beans, and squash, and eating the crushed seeds as snack, much like we do today. Sunflower seeds were also a good source of fat for their diet consisting largely of lean meats. One type of butter has been made into “seed balls,” similar to peanut butter and used as a food source to eat on the go. A type of coffee-like drink was made by soaking roasted sunflower hulls in boiling water. It was believed that the oils from the seed were also used in the bread-making process.

Non-food uses included yellow and purple pigments used as dyes to color textiles, pottery, and body paint. Medicinal uses for the sunflower plant ranged from removing warts, treating sunburns, snakebite remedies, body ointments, cauterizing and healing wounds, to treating chest pain. Dried stems were even used as a type of building material by some tribes.

The history of the sunflower takes an important and interesting turn with its introduction in Europe. Sunflower seeds from North America are believed to have been first imported to Europe by Spanish explorers returning around 1500, and records indicate its establishment in ornamental gardens in Madrid, Spain, around 1510 Later, sunflowers were introduced to Europe from the New World by the British. and French.

As sunflowers spread across Europe, they were used for ornamental plantings and the seeds were eaten as a delicacy. The British cultivated sunflowers as an oilseed crop in the early 1700s and a patent was issued for the extraction of oil from the seed in 1716. The Czar of Russia, “Peter the Great” is credited with introducing the sunflower in Russia after seeing the plant in Holland. By the beginning of the 19th century, Russia recognized the potential of sunflowers as vegetable oil and food for human consumption. Breeding programs have identified two specific types of sunflower: the oil type for oil production and a coarse seed type for human consumption. Government breeding programs were implemented, and soon Russian farmers were cultivating millions of acres of sunflowers. At the end of the 19th century, it is believed that Russian immigrants were responsible for the reintroduction of improved sunflower varieties such as Mammoth Russian or Giant Russian to the United States. The Canadian government initiated a sunflower breeding program in 1930 using plant material from the gardens of Mennonite immigrants from Russia. Thirty-four years later, in 1964, the Canadian government authorized the Russian cultivar called Peredovik. This cultivar produced higher yields and a higher oil content. As commercial interest in producing sunflower oil increased, so did the acreage of sunflower in the United States. Hybridization of sunflower varieties in the 1970s led to a further increase in yield, higher oil content, and greater disease resistance. Today, sunflower varieties are used that have been specifically bred to tolerate certain herbicides that provide farmers with broad spectrum grass and weed control options. The gene that led to the development of this latest technology comes from a wild sunflower, which is considered a weed in commercial sunflower growing areas of the country. This trait was developed through a breeding program using plant breeding procedures for wild sunflowers and non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) plants.

In the United States, farmers planted an estimated 1.38 million sunflower areas in 2019 for seed and oil production, a substantial drop from the peak sunflower production years of the late 1970s, when over 5 million acres were planted due to strong European demand for sunflower oil. However, many experts predict a bright future for sunflowers. As consumers become more health conscious and seek to reduce the amount of saturated fat in their diets, the demand for sunflower oil and products is expected to increase, as sunflowers are naturally trans fat free and low in fatty acids. saturated.

The next time you pass a field of sunflowers, take a few moments to think about the amazing transformation of its wild ancestor from North America and its journey to Europe, Russia and the United States where it is. 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 Amerindians, Parts I and II by Robert M. Harveson, Plant Pathologist Extensionist, University of Nebraska, Panhandle REC, ScottsBluff StarHerald

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