Authors’s Note: This article is part I of a three part series summarizing the story of the sunflower: its origin, development as a commercial crop, and unique voyage from North America to Europe and the rest of the world and back.
The genus Helianthus includes approximately 70 species, including about 50 from temperate North America, and 20 species from the South American Andes. It is a part of the large family Asteraceae, meaning “star” in Greek. The name Helianthus is also derived from the Greek, “helios anthos” meaning “sun flower”. Native to North America, many wild species were gathered and used by early Native Americans, but only one species of the plant was routinely planted and cultivated, H. annuus.
The species name annuus refers to the plant’s life cycle of living only one season, “annual”. This species is highly variable, consisting of cultivated, weedy and wild forms. Those truly wild forms are found only in the southwestern United States, while weed forms adapted and became common within human settlements throughout North America as a result of ecological disturbances by humans.
After spreading over the continent as weedy camp followers, sunflowers were gradually domesticated by native Americans in the high plains in the central part of the United States. They cultivated the crop, increasing seed size (up to 1,000 percent) over generations, through the gradual modification of the plant’s genetics by continually selecting for and saving the largest seeds. The continual selection in this manner also slowly modified the small multiple-headed weedy plants into tall, vigorous, unbranched plants containing few or single large heads.
During periods of rapid growth prior to flowering, the plant exhibits heliotropism (the seasonal motion of flowers or leaves in response to the direction of the sun), turning its head(s) toward the west as the sun sets. After the completion of growth, when flower heads have formed, the plants remain facing to the east throughout the day. As the pollen is damaged at temperatures exceeding 86 degrees Fahrenheit, it is thought that the eastward-facing habit may assist in maintaining cooler, nonlethal temperatures on the flower side when the sun’s rays become stronger in the afternoon.
Native American Usage - Food
The sunflower was one of the first crops grown in America. When Europeans arrived in the new world, H. annuus was a minor garden crop ranging from Virginia west to the Great Lakes and throughout the High Plains from Canada south to Mexico. Explorers described natives gathering wild sunflowers for food; in other regions, they were observed being cultivated with corn and beans. As an early cultivated crop, they became an important part of the human transition from nomadic to civilized, more sedentary lifestyles.
There are numerous early American references to the use of sunflowers for food. Seeds were eaten as a snack whether raw, cooked, or toasted, and they were further dried and ground into flour to make cake-like breads. The oil was also extracted from the seeds. While on their westward expedition to investigate the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase lands, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark documented sampling sunflower seeds at a fur-trading station in present-day North Dakota.
The remnants of large roasted seeds have been located from archeological digs throughout North America, indicating domestication as early as 1000 B.C. Excavations made during the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) projects unearthed seeds that were more than 4,000 years old. This is thought to provide the earliest evidence for the domestication of the crop anywhere in the world. Additional evidence of sunflowers as a food source has been uncovered from fossilized human feces found preserved in caves dated as long as 6,000 years ago.
Sunflower oil is higher in calories than corn oil. Thus the plant’s edible seeds became a good source of fat for the indigenous North American natives as a supplement to diets largely restricted to lean meat. Additionally, crushed seeds molded into compact balls were easily stored and carried by warriors traveling by horseback, who snacked on them as a method for overcoming weariness.
It is obvious from these archaeological observations that humans have been growing and consuming sunflowers for a long time. Several scientists have even postulated that sunflowers may have been domesticated prior to the introduction of corn into North America from Mexico.
Further Native American Usage
In addition to food, archeologists have further provided evidence that the Native American Indians readily grew and utilized the sunflower in a myriad of diverse ways, including medicine, and as a part of religious ceremonies or rituals. Yellow pigments extracted from the petals and purple pigments from certain wild species were used as dyes for textiles, coloring for baskets, and pottery and body painting.
Medicinal uses for the plant ranged from cauterization and healing of wounds to snake bite antidotes to the alleviation of pulmonary and chest pains. The anthropologist Charles H. Lange wrote that one of the more interesting “home remedies” by the Cochiti tribe was to apply the juice of freshly cut stems to cuts or other wounds. The sticky resinous juices formed a crust after drying that served as a form of dressing. Consuming the seeds was even thought to have aphrodisiac powers by some groups.
Native American Sunflower Folklore
The Minnesota-based pastor, Gilbert Wilson, studied and documented numerous aspects of the Hidasta Tribe lifestyle at the turn of the 20th century in North Dakota. His narrative provided a detailed, first-person account of sunflower planting, harvesting, and cooking procedures. The crop was so ingrained into the Hidasta culture that their name for the lunar period corresponding most closely to April (sunflower planting time in the Northern Hemishpere) is Mapi-o’ce-mi’di, or “sunflower-planting-moon”.
As another example of the crop’s importance, the Hopis of the southwestern U.S. had a goddess who was the guardian of the sunflower. Her name was Kuwanlelenta, translated as “to make beautiful surroundings”. Sunflowers additionally became part of a creation myth by the Iroquois, who correlated the successful establishment of healthy plants with abundant harvests.
The Sunflower Leaves North America
It is thought that the Spanish first introduced the sunflower from the New World into Europe through the Iberian Peninsula sometime around 1500. The earliest evidence of this movement to the Old World includes records documenting the planting of seeds from New Mexico in a botanical garden in Madrid in 1510. However, it is likely that additional, separate routes of passage from America have also occurred, including French and British introductions from Canada and Virginia respectively.
The first known book making reference to sunflowers was published in 1568, followed by numerous references appearing in other herbals in the mid-16th century. The plant rapidly became popular, but not as a food product. It was of interest primarily as a curiosity and an exotic ornamental plant. Another European, Thomas Harriot, an emissary of Sir Walter Raleigh in the new world, also described domesticated sunflowers being cultivated in Virginia.
Next: Part II- The sunflower expands throughout Europe
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