21 March 2021

The Strange History of the Sunflower

You may not think that there is much to know about the sunflower. After all, the plant is virtually everywhere. Yet it has something more than a simple, straightforward history and is more of a globe trotter than you may imagine.

Its story has the historical and continental sweep of a Hollywood epic, from the pre-European Americas to Tsarist Russia and back again. Here is the tale of the peripatetic sunflower, accompanied by some stunning photography.

Sunflowers originate from North America but would travel to the Old World and back – and back again - in their centuries old journey to become the plant we know today. They were probably one of the first crops to be grown in the Americas. Before this they were picked by hunter gatherers as a natural source of fat. The seeds could be ground up and mixed with flour to make bread much like the pita variety we eat today. Around five thousand years ago people began to farm them in the south-western parts of North America in what is now Mexico. As they were cultivated over the generations the plants were encouraged to produce ever bigger seeds – and many more of them as well. So, the sunflower we have now bears no resemblance to how it started out as the human race has interfered with its characteristics for all these thousands of years.

It has been suggested that the sunflower was even domesticated before corn. It was during this time that the Cherokee and other Native Americans also began to farm sunflowers. They became an important part of the diet of these peoples as a good source of fat – which hunter gatherer societies needed to supplement the lean meat they would eat. Down south in Mexico the Aztecs were also cultivating the plant but they worshiped it too. In their temples to the sun, the priestesses would wear headdresses made of sunflowers to give themselves the air of the divine. The past of the sunflower, then, already reveals some ‘secrets’.

Yet no one would have guessed what the future of the sunflower held – and the travels it would endure.

As today, the sunflower seed was cracked and snacked on - something you can eat between meals without ruining your appetite - albeit a much healthier snack than many we eat today. There are early records of the oil being squeezed and used to make bread too. However, the sunflower was not only a food source. It was used to create a dye of a purple color which was used then to enhance clothing, paint bodies and decorate objects. Other parts of the plant were used to make medicinal remedies for snake bites and ointments. The seed oil was used to lubricate hair and skin. As ancient societies could not afford to waste anything the stalks were dried and then used as a building material.

Although many people might not know where the sunflower originated it is not really an omission in their education for which they could be blamed. It would not take long for Europeans, after the discovery of the New World as they called it, to see the benefits of transporting seeds across the Atlantic and beyond. It is thought that the plant arrived in the Old World (to Spain) around the beginning of the sixteenth century but because of its wonderful size and beauty (it was considered very exotic) the sunflower was first used mostly as an ornamental plant. There is a record of a patent for squeezing the oil out of the sunflower much later – in England in 1716.

It was not until the eighteenth century that the sunflower gained huge popularity as a cultivated plant and the person we have to thank for that is perhaps not the first who might spring to mind. Peter the Great of Russia went on one of his many trips and landed up in Holland. There, he became so enamored of the giant flower that he took seeds back to Russia where the people were no doubt nonplussed by it – at least to begin with. During Lent, the Russian Orthodox Church forbad its adherents from consuming oil. However, the oil of the sunflower was not on the prohibited list and the Russian people jumped on Peter’s bandwagon wholeheartedly. By the third decade of the nineteenth century sunflower oil was manufactured in Russia on a large and highly lucrative commercial scale.

Russia was awash with the giant flowers, growing over two million acres a year. They identified two types, one for oil production and one for their own consumption. The government even invested money in to what we now call research projects and one scientist, VS Pustovoit was the originator of the most successful breeding venture. Even today scientific awards for the study of the sunflower are awarded in his name. So, by 1830 the time was ripe for the sunflower (as it had become in Russia) to make a triumphant return to the Americas.

That’s right. One of history’s ironies is that the native of the Americas returned, changed with its properties heightened by Russian intervention. Perhaps if Stalin had known this he might have demanded their return to the motherland a century later when the two nations threatened to annihilate each other. It is thought that Russian immigrants to the US and Canada took seeds with them and by the 1880s companies were offering the ‘Mammoth Russian’ in their catalogs - a variety that was sold until the nineteen seventies.

It took a while for the Americans to take advantage of the sunflower as a cash crop and it is first recorded as silage feed for chickens. Then in 1926 the Missouri Sunflower Growers Association started processing sunflower seed in to oil. The secret was finally out and nothing would be the same for the sunflower ever again. The Canadians got the same idea about the same time and the government there started its breeding programme in 1930. In both countries the breeding material (the seeds) came from members of the Russian Mennonite community.

Now the race was on. The amount of acres given over to sunflowers grew as demand for oil grew. In 1946 a crushing plant was instituted in Canada then North Dakota and Minnesota started out on their journey to become major sunflower cultivators. Again it was a Russian cultivar (Peredovik) that was used as it produced high yields with oil content second to no other variety. Then came the supersonic, scientific, psychedelic seventies: new technology and hybridization were on the horizon.

By the early eighties the US was producing over five million acres. Then – by yet another quirk of history – the sunflower that went from America to Russia and back would return once again to Europe. Cholesterol had by this time become a household word and European demand for sunflower oil had increased to such an amount that Russian exporters could no longer cope with the amounts needed. The seeds were imported in to Europe from the US and then crushed and refined there. Today, however, things have balanced out and US exports of the seeds or oil is relatively small once again.

So in a strange and eventful full circle, the North American sunflower is back home for what seems like good this time. No doubt the ancient hunter gatherers might scratch their heads in bewilderment at its centuries of travails and travels but would – it is hoped – be proud of their first and earliest contribution to this strange but fascinating tale.

Let's just recap - we have produced a map below to track the sunflower's journey.  It's not brilliant (apologies my PowerPoint skills may not be what they should be!) but it does include all the major elements of this astounding journey.