An annual, the cultivated sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is an American indigene. In 1752, Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus created the genus Helianthus, into which he placed sunflower. Helios means “sun” and anthos means “flower,” giving the plant the literal name sunflower. Fond of it, Linnaeus asked: “Who can see this plant in flower, whose great golden blossoms send out rays in every direction from the circular disk, without admiring the handsome flower modeled after the sun’s shape?” Linnaeus, who grew sunflower in the botanical garden at Uppsala, Sweden, knew 11 species, all perennial except the cultivated species. The genus Helianthus has more than 50 species. Sunflower is a member of the Asteraceae family, which has more than 20,000 species. The 19th-century Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh painted sunflowers, considering them a symbol of gratitude. When the Mormons migrated from Missouri to Utah, they left a trail of sunflower seeds for others to follow. Sunflower seeds have oil, protein, thiamine, and iron. Pound for pound, sunflower seeds contain more calories than corn. Today, homeopaths use sunflower to treat fever, nosebleed, nausea, and vomiting. Sunflower is today one of the four most important oil crops, the other three being soybean, peanut, and rapeseed.

Attributes, Cultivation, and Cultivars

Young plants are heliotropes, tracking the sun as it journeys across the sky. Mature plants face east, absorbing the morning sun. The large head of sunflower is not a single flower but a composite of many flowers. Many people think that a sunflower has one head per plant, but some varieties have multiple heads per plant. The gardener should not start sunflower indoors because it does not transplant well. Seeds should be sown one-half of an inch deep in the garden after the last frost. Sunflower is hardy enough to tolerate light frost, though it languishes in shade. When flowering, the plant consumes copious amounts of water. Because they are tall, some varieties benefit from being staked so they will not lodge. When a flower drops its petals, its seeds are ready to harvest. The gardener should store seeds, which may remain viable seven years, in a cool, dark place. The sunflower has anthers and stigmas in each flower, making possible self-pollination, though in most cases insects cross-pollinate flowers.

More than 2,000 varieties of sunflower exist. Russian scientists have bred numerous varieties, among them Russian Mammoth, also known as Russian Giant, Tall Russian, and Russian Greystripe. Growing to a height of 9 to 12 feet, the cultivar produces large heads, each of which yields up to 5,000 plump seeds that are gray-black with white stripes. Seeds are ready to harvest 80 days after planting. Tarahumara matures in 85 to 100 days. The attractive heads are golden with a green center. Seeds are gray and white. In the 1930s, Mennonites introduced Tarahumara into Canada. The Tarahumara Indians of Chihuahua, Mexico, adopted the variety, giving it its name. In 1804, American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark found the Arikara Indians of North Dakota cultivating the variety that bears their name. The head, 12 to 16 inches in diameter, is yellow-orange. Arikara may yield more than one head per plant. Maturing in 100 days, the seeds are black and white. Today, Arikara is difficult to find.


Originating in what is today the southern United States or southern Mexico, sunflower predated the arrival of humans in the Americas. As the climate cooled and dried in North America, sunflower expanded its habitat at the expense of trees. Buffalo may have been the original dispersers of sunflower seeds, enabling the plant to colonize North America. Between 8000 and 6000 BCE, humans began eating wild sunflower seeds. Between 3000 and 1000 BCE, humans domesticated the sunflower. One authority believes that the Amerindians of Arizona and New Mexico began to cultivate sunflower about 3000 BCE, though this date may be too early. Another authority believes that Native Americans domesticated sunflower before corn. Archaeologists have dated fossilized sunflower seeds in Tennessee to 2200 BCE. Because the seeds are large, they must have been the product of selection and cultivation. This find may mark the origin of sunflower culture in the Americas. Fossilized sunflower pollen found in Amerindian settlements in Kentucky, Ohio, and Texas suggests that the plant was widespread in prehistory. Humans may have first cultivated sunflower at the edge of their campsites. Sunflower seeds were a leading source of calories for Native Americans. In what is today the United States, sunflower was one of only six cultigens, the others being chenopod, sump weed, may grass, erect knotwood, and little barley. Of these, only sunflower remains a crop today.

The conviction that the sunflower was a domesticate in what is today the United States received a blow when a recent find dated sunflower seeds in southern Mexico to 2800 BCE, 600 years older than the Tennessee seeds. If this date is accurate, the sunflower originated in Mexico rather than the United States. The sunflower, and with it agriculture, may not have arisen independently in the United States but may have been an offshoot of developments in Mexico. It is possible, of course, that agriculture arose independently in the United States and Mexico, but it seems probable that it arose first in Mexico and diffused to the United States. Yet not everyone accepts the Mexican find. One authority believes that the Mexican seeds were really from squash, not sunflower. If this were true, Tennessee would remain the cradle of sunflower culture. If one assumes the validity of the Mexican find, then the Americans cultivated sunflower from southern Mexico to Canada in prehistory. At its height, sunflower was cultivated from the Arctic Circle to the tropics and from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean.

The Amerindians ate sunflower seeds raw, roasted, or ground into meal or bread. By 1000 BCE, the Amerindians extracted oil from sunflower seeds for cooking. In the 19th century, Buffalo Bird Woman, a Hidatsa Indian in North Dakota, told how tribal women pounded seeds into meal that they wrapped in skin, giving it to men to eat for quick energy. Doubtless, this was an ancient practice. The Amerindians pulverized sunflower seeds into powder, which they mixed with water to make gruel. Native Americans ate sunflower flower buds. They used sunflower in cosmetics and to treat kidney ailments, snakebite, cough, whooping cough, and the common cold. They used sunflower to remove warts, to rid the body of excess water, and to loosen mucus in the chest. The Amerindians planted sunflower around their homes in the belief that it would shield them from malaria. They used sunflower stalks to make their homes.

By the 13th century, the Hopi cultivated sunflower and corn. They made sunflower seeds into piki, a type of bread. They believed that goddess Kuwanlelenta was the guardian of sunflower. They wore sunflowers in their hair during the worship of Kuwanlelenta. According to myth, the Spider Grandmother taught the Hopi to sing to sunflowers. As long as they sang, the plants grew. When they stopped singing, the plants ceased growth. Because they were trapped in the underworld, the Hopi sang to sunflowers in hopes that they would grow tall. They then aimed to climb up the plant and out of the underworld. This attempt failed, leading the Hopi to climb up a pine tree to escape the underworld.

The Mandan cultivated sunflower in North Dakota, and the Pueblo grew sunflower in the Rio Grande Valley. Other tribes made sunflower seed cakes. The Amerindians of North Dakota combined sunflower with beans, squash, and corn- meal. Warriors carried balls of sunflower seeds for a Spartan meal. The Iroquois grew sunflower, beans, and corn. The Amerindians of Virginia used sunflower oil in making bread.

A World Crop

In 1510, the Spanish acquired sunflower seeds from New Mexico, growing them in a botanical garden in Madrid. In 1568, Flemish herbalist Rembertus Dodonaeus published the first description of sunflower. From Spain, the plant migrated to Italy and France. By the late 16th century, botanists grew sunflower in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, and Britain. Cultivating it in his garden, in the 16th-century English herbalist John Gerard obtained 14-foot-tall specimens. He declared the seeds “exceedingly] pleasant.” By 1664, sunflower was grown as an ornamental in Hungary. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, sunflower was a symbol of French king Louis XIV’s reign. In the 18th century, Europeans ate sunflower seeds as a snack. In this capacity, sunflower seeds competed with nuts. Europeans prepared sunflower petioles like asparagus. In Europe, sunflower seeds were used to treat wounds and kidney ailments. Europeans regarded them as a diuretic and planted them in marshes in the belief that they retarded the spread of malaria. In the 18th century, Europeans extracted oil from sunflower seeds. In 1794, Romanians cultivated sunflower for its oil. Romanians grew sunflower in preference to rapeseed on sandy soil. Czar Peter the Great (1672-1725) introduced sunflower from the Netherlands into Russia. In Eastern Europe and Russia sunflower oil was the chief dietary fat. By 1854 Veronezh, Russia, produced many tons of sunflower oil per year. By 1880, sunflower had spread to Ukraine and Kuban. By then, the plant occupied hundreds of thousands of acres in Russia. By the end of the 19th century, sunflower was the principal oilseed crop in Hungary. By then, Hungary exported sunflower oil to Western and Northern Europe and the United States. France exported sunflower oil to the United Kingdom.

In the 19th century, Mennonites introduced sunflower from Russia to Canada. In 1893, the American consul in Saint Petersburg, Russia, sent sunflower seeds back to the United States. In the 1890s, U.S. farmers grew sunflower to feed seeds to chickens and for silage. They cultivated it where the climate was too cold and too dry for corn. By 1914, farmers in Missouri and Arkansas raised sunflower in quantity. Between 1919 and 1947, the United States harvested an average of several million pounds of sunflower seeds per year. In the 1930s Canada, eager to reduce its import of vegetable oils, cultivated sunflower. After World War II, affluent Americans and Europeans turned to sunflower seeds as a snack food.

In 1875, India began extracting oil from sunflower seeds for use as a lubricant and in paint. In the 20th century, farmers grew sunflower in the Philippines and China. Filipinos rotated the crop with rice. In the 20th century, Australians grew sunflower to feed seeds to chickens. During World War II Australia, like Canada eager to reduce the import of vegetable oils, extracted oil from sunflower seeds.

During the war, vegetable oil was scarce in Germany, leading the Nazis to invade Russia for its sunflower oil according to one writer. Sunflower oil lubricated Nazi and Soviet rifles. In Africa, South Africa was the leading producer. As elsewhere, sunflower seed was first a feed for chickens in South Africa. In the 1920s, South Africans used sunflower oil to make soap. European immigrants may have introduced sunflower into Argentina, South America’s leading grower. In Argentina, sunflower competes with peanut as a source of oil. Other South American producers include Uruguay, Chile, and Brazil. In 2010, Ukraine was the world’s leading producer of sunflower oil. The European Union ranked second. Russia ranked third, Argentina fourth, and Turkey fifth. The United States ranked seventh.

Christopher Cumo

Further Reading

Carter, Jack F., ed. Sunflower Science and Technology. Madison, WI: American Society of Agronomy, 1978.

Heiser, Charles B., Jr. The Sunflower. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976.

Pappalardo, Joe. Sunflowers: The Secret History: The Unauthorized Biography of the World’s Most Beloved Weed. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2008.

Schneiter, Albert A., ed. Sunflower Technology and Production. Madison, WI: American Society of Agronomy, 1997.

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