(Helianthus sp.) Sunflowers are
so named because of their "habit" of
turning their flower heads to face directly into
the sun; as well as for their big, yellow
flowers, which somewhat resemble a simple sun.
There are many individual
species of sunflower, with the most commonly
known being Helianthus annus, which
produces the seeds which sunflowers are known
for. All sunflower species are herbaceous annuals
with a fairly rigid, sometimes hairy, stalk,
alternate leaves, and prominent yellow flower
heads. Wild sunflowers average two to five feet
in height with flower disks up to six inches
across, while cultivated varieties can be up to
ten feet high and have a flower disk up to a foot
across. Native sunflowers are found across the
western United States from the Mississippi River
to the Pacific and from northern Mexico into
southern Canada. They grow in a variety of soils
and habitats, and do well in dry, hot conditions
and in poor soils. Blooming typically begins in
early summer, and continues into early fall. All
varieties have a taproot that, depending on soil
type and moisture conditions, can reach a foot or
more deep. Many varieties appear to have a
natural immunity to insect pests.
Sunflowers were first
cultivated over 3000 years ago by Native
Americans, who selected plants based on the
number and sizes of seeds produced. The plant was
introduced into Europe, in the 16th century;
while it is unknown exactly who first took
sunflower plants to Europe, it was the Russians
who first grew them commercially there. Russia
still leads the world in commercial sunflower
production, followed by Argentina, the United
States, and Canada. Minnesota and the Dakotas are
the leading sunflower producers in the U.S.;
Manitoba is the leader in Canada.
Sunflowers are most commonly
cultivated for their seeds, and one plant can
easily produce several dozen seeds per flower
head. Native Americans valued sunflower seeds as
an easy source of nutrition and energy, and ate
them raw, roasted and boiled. Natives also ground
seeds into flour, which was used in breads,
gravies and gruels. Sunflower seeds are still
popular as snacks, as well as for their high oil
content (one seed may consist of up to 40% oil).
Sunflower seed oil was traditionally used as a
base for medicines to treat skin rashes, chest
and pulmonry ailments, colds and coughs, and even
as an aphrodisiac. Modern uses for sunflower seed
oil include cooking, and as a base for margarine
and other food products, soaps, and lubricants.
Sunflower stalks make excellent livestock fodder,
and, when dried, a good fuel for cooking fires.
Efforts are underway to use the fibers from green
stems in the making of paper and fabrics.
Sunflower hulls are used in the making of ethyl
alcohol and to line plywood.
The wild native sunflower (Helianthus
annus) became the official flower of Kansas in
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