Sunflowers

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Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus L.)

Sunflowers, a member of the aster family native to North America, were, and still are, cultivated for their oil and their edible seeds. Sunflowers today are very hardy and will grow well with full sun in most types of disturbed soils. Wild sunflowers thrive on cultivated ground, low meadows, prairies, and along roadsides and railroads. Their many small heads flower from July to September, the seeds ripening into October. Domesticated sunflowers have one or a few heads.

The earliest archaeological evidence for domesticated sunflowers in eastern North America comes from Tennessee where they are dated at 4900 year ago. Most researchers believe that sunflowers make a good case for a separate and independent origin of agriculture in eastern North America. The first domestication probably came about as the result of early peoples selecting and planting the largest seeds from wild plants— plants with the largest heads or seeds that remained on the head after the plant reached maturity. Eventually early gardeners gradually increased the seed size by 1,000 percent.

Sunflowers were cultivated in Iowa perhaps as early as 4000 year old when they appear in the Late Archaic occupation at the Sand Run West site in Louisa County. Thereafter, they occur commonly in Woodland through Late Prehistoric Great Oasis, Mill Creek, Glenwood, and Oneota sites.

In historic times, native peoples utilized all parts of the sunflower plant for food, medicine, ceremony, decoration, and utilitarian purposes. Seeds, high in fat, protein, and calories, were boiled to extract the oil and parched and ground to make a meal or flour. The stem of the plant was used to make animal snares, candles, and fire sticks.

Major References

Adrain, Tiffany S. 2003
Asch, David L. and William Green 1992
Crites, Gary D. 1993
Dunne, Michael T. 1997
Dunne, Michael T. and Green, William 1998
Green, William and Shelly Gradwell 1995
Lopinot, Neal H. 1987

Map of Iowa with yellow stars that indicate prehistoric sites known to have cultivated sunflower

Iowa Sites
Site Number Major Reference Family Genus and Species Iowa Culture
13BN103 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus GO
13BN110 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus GO
13BN182 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus MW
13BV1 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus MC
13CF101 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus EW/MW/ELW
13CF102 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus EW/MW/ELW
13CK15 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus MC
13DA264 Asch, 1996 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus GO
13HR28 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus W
13JN3 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus LW
13LA1 Hollinger, 1999; Hollinger, 2005 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus O
13LA12 Dunne, 2002; Hodgson, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus var. macrocarpus ELW
13LA27 Wright, 1999 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus LW
13LA38 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus LA
13LA309 Powell, 2001 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus LW
13LE110 Hollinger, 2005; Zalucha, 1999 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus O
13LO2 Asch and Green, 1992;
Green and Tolmie 2004
COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus O
13MA207 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus O
13MA209 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus macrocarpus O
13ML129 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus G
13ML130 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus G
13ML131 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus G
13ML136 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus G
13ML138 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus G
13ML139 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus G
13ML175 Adair, 2010 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus G
13ML176 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus G
13ML361 Green and Billeck, 1993 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus G
13OB4 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus MC
13OB7 Nepstad-Thornberry, 1998 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus MC
13PK165 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus LW
13PK407 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus O
13PM1 Adrain, 2003 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus MC
13PM25 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus GO
13PM61 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus GO/MC
13PM91 Asch and Green, 1992 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus ELW
13WD88 Dunne, 2005 COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAE Helianthus annuus var. macrocarpus GO

 

Key
LA Late Archaic
EW Early Woodland
MW Middle Woodland
ELW Early Late Woodland
LW Late Woodland
W Woodland
GO Great Oasis
MC Mill Creek
G Glenwood
O Oneota

Photo of sunflower plant with seeds around it (scale 1 cm for seeds)

Photo of sunflower plant with seeds around it (scale 1 cm for seeds)

Photo of a sunflower bud

Photo of a sunflower bud

 

Image Credit:
Wendy and Michael Scullin
Steve Hurst @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
Melanie Riley and Mary Kathryn Rocheford, OSA (map)