Meet Konganator @BillsGarden entry in the
2014 SunFlower Challenge
The wild sunflower is native to North America but commercialization of the
plant took place in Russia. It was only recently that the sunflower plant
returned to North America to become a cultivated crop. But it was the
American Indian who first domesticated the plant into a single headed plant
with a variety of seed colors including black, white, red, and black/white
American Indian Uses
Sunflower was a common crop among American Indian tribes throughout North
America. Evidence suggests that the plant was cultivated by American Indians
in present-day Arizona and New Mexico about 3000 BC. Some archaeologists
suggest that sunflower may have been domesticated before corn.
Sunflower was used in many ways throughout the various American Indian
tribes. Seed was ground or pounded into flour for cakes, mush or bread. Some
tribes mixed the meal with other vegetables such as beans, squash, and corn.
The seed was also cracked and eaten for a snack. There are references of
squeezing the oil from the seed and using the oil in making bread.
Non-food uses include purple dye for textiles, body painting and other
decorations. Parts of the plant were used medicinally ranging from snakebite
to other body ointments. The oil of the seed was used on the skin and hair.
The dried stalk was used as a building material. The plant and the seeds were
widely used in ceremonies.
This exotic North American plant was taken to Europe by Spanish
explorers some time around 1500. The plant became widespread throughout
present-day Western Europe mainly as an ornamental, but some medicinal uses
were developed. By 1716, an English patent was granted for squeezing oil from
Sunflower became very popular as a cultivated plant in the 18th century. Most
of the credit is given to Peter the Great. The plant was initially used as an
ornamental, but by 1769 literature mentions sunflower cultivated by oil
production. By 1830, the manufacture of sunflower oil was done on a
commercial scale. The Russian Orthodox Church increased its popularity by
forbidding most oil foods from being consumed during Lent. However, sunflower
was not on the prohibited list and therefore gained in immediate popularity
as a food.
By the early 19th century, Russian farmers were growing over 2 million acres
of sunflower. During that time, two specific types had been identified:
oil-type for oil production and a large variety for direct human consumption.
Government research programs were implemented. V. S. Pustovoit developed a
very successful breeding program at Krasnodar. Oil contents and yields were
increased significantly. Today, the world's most prestigious sunflower
scientific award is known as The Pustovoit Award.
Sunflower Back to North America
By the late 19th century, Russian sunflower seed found its way into the US.
By 1880, seed companies were advertising the 'Mammoth Russian' sunflower seed
in catalogues. This particular seed name was still being offered in the US in
1970, nearly 100 years later. A likely source of this seed movement to North
America may have been Russian immigrants. The first commercial use of the
sunflower crop in the US was silage feed for poultry. In 1926, the Missouri
Sunflower Growers' Association participated in what is likely the first
processing of sunflower seed into oil.
Canada started the first official government sunflower breeding program in
1930. The basic plant breeding material utilized came from Mennonite
(immigrants from Russia) gardens. Acreage spread because of oil demand. By
1946, Canadian farmers built a small crushing plant. Acreage spread into
Minnesota and North Dakota. In 1964, the Government of Canada licensed the
Russian cultivar called Peredovik. This seed produced high yields and high
oil content. Acreage increased in the US with commercial interest in the
production of sunflower oil. Sunflower was hybridized in the middle seventies
providing additional yield and oil enhancement as well as disease resistance.
Back to Europe
U.S. acreage escalated in the late 70's to over 5 million because of strong
European demand for sunflower oil. This European demand had been stimulated
by Russian exports of sunflower oil in the previous decades. During this
time, animal fats such as beef tallow for cooking were negatively impacted by
cholesterol concerns. However, the Russians could no longer supply the
growing demand, and European companies looked to the fledging U.S. industry.
Europeans imported sunflower seed that was then crushed in European mills.
Western Europe continues to be a large consumer of sunflower oil today, but
depends on its own production. U.S. exports to Europe of sunflower oil or
seed for crushing is quite small.
The native North American sunflower plant has finally come back home after a
very circuitous route. It is the Native Americans and the Russians who
completed the early plant genetics and the North Americans who put the
finishing touches on it in the form of hybridization. Those early ancestors
would quickly recognize their contributions to today's commercial sunflower
if they were here.
The reference for this summary was taken from: Albert A. Schneiter, ed.
Sunflower Technology and Production, (The American Society of Agronomy No.
35, 1997) 1-19.