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 NumberMajor ReferenceFamilyGenus and SpeciesIowa Culture
13BN103Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusGO
13BN110Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusGO
13BN182Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusMW
13BV1Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusMC
13CF101Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusEW/MW/ELW
13CF102Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusEW/MW/ELW
13CK15Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusMC
13DA264Asch, 1996COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusGO
13HR28Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusW
13JN3Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusLW
13LA1Hollinger, 1999; Hollinger, 2005COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusO
13LA12Dunne, 2002; Hodgson, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuus var. macrocarpusELW
13LA27Wright, 1999COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusLW
13LA38Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusLA
13LA309Powell, 2001COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusLW
13LE110Hollinger, 2005; Zalucha, 1999COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusO
13LO2Asch and Green, 1992;
Green and Tolmie 2004
COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusO
13MA207Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusO
13MA209Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuus macrocarpusO
13ML129Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusG
13ML130Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusG
13ML131Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusG
13ML136Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusG
13ML138Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusG
13ML139Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusG
13ML175Adair, 2010COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusG
13ML176Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusG
13ML361Green and Billeck, 1993COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusG
13OB4Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusMC
13OB7Nepstad-Thornberry, 1998COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusMC
13PK165Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusLW
13PK407Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusO
13PM1Adrain, 2003COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusMC
13PM25Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusGO
13PM61Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusGO/MC
13PM91Asch and Green, 1992COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuusELW
13WD88Dunne, 2005COMPOSITAE or ASTERACEAEHelianthus annuus var. macrocarpusGO

 

Key
LALate Archaic
EWEarly Woodland
MWMiddle Woodland
ELWEarly Late Woodland
LWLate Woodland
WWoodland
GOGreat Oasis
MCMill Creek
GGlenwood
OOneota

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)