|Sunflower Fields near Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia.|
After a jaunt to Trader Joes today, and also after picking up someting called "Sunflower Butter" and discovering that it is even more delicious than peanutbutter, I decided to investigate this seemingly innocuous plant.
The story of sunflower (Helianthus Annuus ) is indeed amazing. 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 striped.
|Sunflower Back to North
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.