Growing Sunflowers: From History to Cultivation

Learn the history and get tips and tricks for growing sunflowers.


| October 2013



Field of sunflowers

The benefit of growing sunflowers at home goes far beyond the beautiful flowers, try making your own sunflower oil for an added perk.


Photo By Fotolia/Nancy

The ultimate guide to growing organic grains on a small and ecological scale, The Organic Grain Grower (Chelsea Green, 2013), is invaluable for both home-scale and commercial producers interested in expanding their resiliency and crop diversity through growing their own grains. In this excerpt from chapter 16, Oilseeds, longtime farmer and organic pioneer Jack Lazor covers growing sunflowers, starting with their agricultural history and finishing with the production of sunflower oil.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Organic Grain Grower.

History of the Sunflower

Like corn and dry beans, the sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is native to North America, and was first domesticated by Native Americans in Arizona and New Mexico around 3000 bc. They cultivated the sunflower for its seeds, which they pounded into meal for cakes, mush, and bread; the oil from the seeds was rubbed onto their skin and hair. Spanish explorers first encountered these strikingly beautiful plants early in the sixteenth century on their forays northward into what was to become the American Southwest. By 1550, sunflowers had been brought back to Spain and Mediterranean Europe for use as an ornamental flower, and the culture then spread eastward to Egypt, India, and Russia. In 1716, the English patented a process for squeezing oil from sunflower seeds. The Russians, however, deserve credit for turning sunflowers into a food crop.

Russian Influence

Olive oil was the natural choice for cooking in Southern Europe because the olive tree was so well suited to the warm, arid climate of the Mediterranean basin. But Russia was not blessed with the same climate, which meant that it had to import oil from the south. When Russians discovered that copious amounts of oil could be pressed from sunflower seeds, the crop took the country by storm. By the eighteenth century, sunflowers were being extensively cultivated in Russia as an oilseed crop. Peter the Great was a great champion of sunflowers, and the Russian Orthodox Church forbade the consumption of all oils except sunflower during Lent. There is historic evidence of commercial oil production in Russia as early as 1769. Russian farmers and plant breeders should be given credit for selecting and improving sunflowers and turning them into a field crop. Yields and standability increased at the same time as a sunflower oil industry developed. By the nineteenth century, Russia had become a major exporter of sunflower oil to Europe; two million acres of sunflowers were being grown there at the time. Some of the sunflower varieties that we grow in our gardens today, like Mammoth Russian and Black Giant, were actually developed centuries ago north of the Black Sea in Russia. These varieties were rather noteworthy at the time because of their almost two-foot-diameter seed heads.

Interest in cultivating sunflowers began to grow here in North America during the 1880s. Progressive plantsmen and other forward-thinking individuals of the era turned to Russia for improved varieties of the very sunflowers that had originated here hundreds of years earlier. Missouri seems to have been one of the first areas in the United States to widely adopt the crop. A growers’ association was established in 1926, followed shortly after by the first commercial production of sunflower oil in the country. Sunflower seed was also brought into Canada by Russian immigrants who settled on the prairies. A sunflower-breeding program was initiated by the Canadian government in 1930; the plant breeding material came from Russian Mennonite immigrants. Canada’s first sunflower-seed-oil-crushing plant came online in 1946. Due to its popularity north of the border and the ideal climate of the high plains, sunflower acreage soon spread southward into the wheat country of northwestern Minnesota and North Dakota. This area has remained the epicenter of sunflower culture since World War II.

The Rise of the Hybrid Sunflowers

Sunflowers remained a relatively minor crop throughout the 1950s and 1960s because demand for the oil was not great and efficient harvesting machinery had not yet been developed. Acreage continued to increase slowly in the Canadian prairie provinces, and the Canadian government licensed the Russian variety Peredovik for widespread planting in 1964. The most amazing thing about sunflower culture in North America during this era was that only open-pollinated nonhybrid varieties were being planted by farmers. Hybrid corn — produced by crossing one corn variety with a mate that had been detasseled — had been the norm since the late 1930s, but this was not the case for sunflowers. This process couldn’t be done with sunflowers because there was no way to turn one plant into a male and another into a female. But this all changed in the 1970s when sunflower breeders were finally able to isolate cytoplasmic male sterile lines to use as the female parent in the hybridization process. The very first sunflower hybrids were released in the mid-’70s. This corresponded with an increased public acceptance of vegetable oils as animal fats declined in popularity. European demand for sunflower oil had also begun to outstrip Russian production, and with new higher-producing sunflower hybrids and an extra-strong demand for oil in Southern Europe, American farmers began to plant more acres of this crop than ever before. The US yearly production finally exceeded five million acres for the first time in the late 1970s. Sunflower production had finally emerged from inconsequence.





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