Photo © Steven Foster
The sunflower is a summer-flowering annual known for its giant daisy-like flowers.1 Each flower can yield several hundred seeds.1 Sunflower is thought to be native to North America.2 Today, the flowers can be found growing wild throughout the United States to Central America.1 The seeds are usually collected in the autumn and are pressed for oil, eaten fresh, or roasted.1
History and Cultural Significance
The native peoples of North America were probably the first culture to utilize the sunflower.2 They extracted oil from the seeds by boiling them. They also created a meal by drying the seeds and grinding them coarsely. The meal was then added to soups or made into cakes.2 Native Americans are thought to have used the sunflower for more than 3000 years before its introduction to Spain in 1514.1 Legends of the sunflower have also been passed along from generation to generation.3 Native Americans paid tribute to fallen hunters by placing bowls of sunflower seeds next to the grave to provide the hunter with plenty of food for his long and dangerous journey.3
In the 16th century, the Spanish introduced the flower to Europe where it was used as a decorative plant.2 Not until the 18th century did Germany and Russia start to cultivate the plant for its oil production.1 The plant quickly became an important import and export crop and spread throughout Central Europe and the Mediterranean. The Russians were apparently the first to use the sunflower for medicinal purposes. Russian cultures would soak sunflower stems in vodka as a treatment for malaria.1
As a food, sunflower seeds are known as a good source of protein, Vitamin D, E, K, and B complex.3 The seeds are most commonly eaten raw or roasted. Often the seeds can be found as an ingredient in breads and muffins.3 The oil is used in the manufacture of margarine and sunflower residue can be found as a popular component in animal feeds.1 Cosmetic companies use sunflower oil as a base in massage oils.1
Sunflower oil has been investigated for its use in soothing athlete’s foot,4 burns,5 and sores.6
Of the acreage planted in sunflowers in the US, more than 99% is planted in hybridized plants.7 Hybrids have replaced the original varieties because they have better pest resistance, stronger stalks, and increased yield. Hybrid seed, grown specifically for oilseed and high oleic sunflower production, is available for those growers wishing to accommodate the cosmetic and pharmaceutical markets.7
The sunflower market is very changeable based on weather, price fluctuations, and supply and demand, but up to date information is easily accessible.
1 Bown D. The Herb Society of America New Encyclopedia of Herbs & Their Uses. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd; 2001.
2 Davidson A. The Oxford Companion to Food. New York: Oxford University Press; 1999.
3 Onstad D. Whole Foods Companion. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Co.; 1996.
4 Menendez S, Falcon L, Simon DR, Landa N. Efficacy of ozonized sunflower oil in the treatment of tinea pedis. Mycoses. Oct 2002:45(8):329-332.
5 Turegun M, et al. Sunflower oil in the treatment of hot tar burns. Burns. 1997:23(5);442-445.
6 Declair V. The usefulness of topical application of essential fatty acids (EFA) to prevent pressure ulcers. Ostomy Wound Management. 1997:43(5);48-52.
7 Hybrid Selection and Production Practices. Available at: http://www.ext.nodak.edu/extpubs/plantsci/rowcrops/eb25w-5.htm. Accessed March 24, 2005.