Annual Sunflower


Perhaps like you, I am enjoying seeing the sunflower fields in full bloom.  It really is an amazing sight:  so much so that visitors to our state often stop to take pictures of these fields of golden-yellow.  We do too!

Sunflowers, of course, are members of the aster or sunflower family.   They belong to the genus Helianthus which comes from the Greek translation of “Helio” (sun) and “anthus” (flower).    The common name is likely a reference to the huge yellow blooms which can remind us of the sun.  Some people have the impression that the name is because the flower heads track the sun as it crosses the sky. That does not happen; just watch a sunflower field for a day.

There are around seventy species of sunflowers native to the new world (North, Central, and South America).  North Dakota is home to about a half dozen species, one of which is Helianthus annuus or the common sunflower.   The native range of this weedy annual stretches from Canada to northern Mexico. This is the same species as the cultivated sunflowers, and one of a handful of crops that are native to North America.

Domestication of the common sunflower goes back to well before Christ.  Some estimates put domestication as early as 2500 B.C.  The native form of the common sunflower can be found in our region on disturbed sites of native prairie as well as roadsides, abandoned fields, and other disturbed areas.  As you might expect, the native form(s) is much smaller than the cultivated varieties.

Native American cultures used the plant for its oil rich seeds.   This oil was used for cooking as well as lotion for skin and hair.  Crushed seeds were used to thicken soups and making bread.  Yellow dye was made from the flowers.  Also, the Lakota boiled the flower heads to make a treatment for heart problems.

The development of modern varieties, however, really began around the 1500’s when the seeds of sunflowers were taken to Europe.  It was largely the Russians that developed varieties with seeds containing high oil content.  Today, of course, there are numerous varieties for the production of seed and fodder, as well as ornamental purposes.

So enjoy the sunflowers while you can.  Both the wild and domesticated species are putting on their annual show and what a show it is!

Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.

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