Domestication of crops began thousands of years ago in both the old and new worlds. While most of our grain corps are native to the old world, we do have important crops heralding from the Americas. Helianthus annuus aka the annual sunflower has an interesting history.
What do sunflowers remind you of? Large yellow flowers standing tall against a bright blue sky? Bags of sunflowers seeds and baseball games? How about Native Americans, Spanish explores, Russian Tsars, eastern European immigrants, and agricultural scientist? The sunflower has done more than follow the sun.
It’s believed Native Americans first domesticated sunflowers as a grain and oil crop somewhere around 3000 B.C., perhaps before the domestication of corn. Seeds were used to make flour, as a snack, and pressed to extract oil for cooking and cosmetic uses. Non-food uses included parts of the plant to make purple dye, medicinal uses to treat snakebites and for body ointments. They even used dried stalks as building materials. Spanish explorers recognized the importance of the plant and brought seeds to Europe in the 1500s. However, Europeans viewed it only as an ornamental plant. It would largely stay this way until Peter the Great of Russia saw the plant on a trip to Holland in the early 1700s and brought it back to Russia.
Russians soon learned of the valuable oil content and began improving the plant to increase oil production. By the 1830s Russian farmers where producing sunflower oil on a commercial scale. Eastern European immigrants brought seeds of the improved varieties when they immigrated to the US and Canada. By the 1880s seed companies were selling “Mammoth Russian” sunflowers. It wasn’t until the 1920s Americans recognized the importance of the plant as a seed oil source. In 1912 Russian scientist V.S. Pustovoit began a 60-year career leading to many of the modern hi-yield varieties for both oil and grain production. Canada started its own breeding program in 1930.
Following WWII, US research led to development of true hybrid lines with increased yields and disease resistance. Acreage of the crop grew with reliance of sunflower oil as a replacement for animal fats due to cholesterol concerns in the 1980s. Today sunflower oil is the fourth most important oil crop in the world after palm, soybean, and rapeseed.
Today there are many varieties of oil, grain, and ornamental sunflowers. The plant has undergone much change from what the Native Americans grew. Cultivars range in height from 1 to 8 feet tall and flower size from 3 to 12 inches. There are multi-stemmed and single stemmed cultivars. Flowers bloom in hues of yellow to cream, burgundy, bronze, mahogany, orange, and rust red. There are double types such as Teddy Bear that produce flowers full of petals with no center seed disk.
Now through August is a good time to direct seed sunflowers into your flower and garden beds for a cheery autumn display. These are easy to grow from seed and do well in the Louisiana heat. Sow seeds ½”-1” deep in a prepared bed that gets full sun. Water well after planting and keep soil moist during periods of dry weather. Most varieties start to bloom between 55-75 days after planting.
For seed production, choose varieties such as Feed the Birds, Mongolian Giant, Skyscraper, Super Snack Mix and Titan. To grow large seed heads, make an application of general-purpose fertilizer when the flower head begins to appear. Suncredible (a 2021 Louisiana Super Plant) is an annual, ever-blooming, branched sunflower with a bush-like habit. It grows up to 4 feet by 2 feet with blooms up to 4 inches across. Whatever variety you plant, you will be rewarded by cheery blooms in time for fall.