| About the Sunflower
And It's Development
A sunflower crop in bloom, with all the flowers facing towards the rising sun, is a heartwarming sight; it’s food for the soul. Artists in the past have been inspired by the floral beauty of the sunflower; such as Vincent Van Gogh who painted the "Sunflowers" in 1889. This masterpiece was sold at auction in 1987 for about $55 million Cdn.
The story of the sunflower (Helianthus Annuus) is indeed amazing. This native plant to the western plains of North America was first used by the American Indians as a foodstuff before the cultivation of corn. They first domesticated the plant into a single headed plant with a variety of seed colours including black, white, red, and black/white striped. Evidence suggests that the plant was cultivated by Indians in present-day Arizona and New Mexico about 3000 BC. Seed was ground or pounded into flour for cakes, mush or bread. Sunflower was also grown as a medicinal crop, source of dye, oil for ceremonial body painting, pottery, and the dried stalk was used as a building material. The sunflower was also a hunting calendar, when it was tall and in bloom, the buffalo were fat and the meat good.
The cultivated sunflower is one of over 50 native species in the genus Helianthus. It is a member of the Compositae family and has a typical composite flower. A few species are grown as ornamentals, for bird seed, and the rest are weeds. The perennial Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus L.) is another common sunflower species. It was often grown in farm gardens of the past for its edible tuberous root containing levulose sugars that diabetics can eat.
The large, beautiful green leaves of the sunflower have the function of manufacturing food for the plant by means of a process called photosynthesis. All of our food, directly or indirectly, comes from this important energy-converting activity of green plants.
The exotic North American sunflower plant was taken to Europe by Spanish explorers some time around 1500. It spread along the trade routes to India, China and Russia. By 1830 Russia became the first to produce sunflower oil on a commercial scale and has since become the world’s number one producer of sunflower oil. It was only recently that the sunflower plant returned to North America to become a cultivated crop. In 1926, the Missouri Sunflower Growers' Association participated in what is likely the first commercial processing of sunflower seed into oil in North America.
Canada started the first official government sunflower breeding program in 1930. By 1946, Canadian farmers built a small crushing plant. In 1964, the Government of Canada licensed the Russian cultivars called Peredovik which produced high yields and high oil content. Sunflower was hybridized in the middle seventies providing additional yield and oil enhancement as well as disease resistance.
This high quality, edible sunflower oil has found widespread acceptance throughout the world. Now, due to the development of high-oil content varieties by plant breeders, sunflower is grown wherever the climate is favourable. The oilseed hybrids usually have black kernels that contain 38 to 50 percent oil, which may be either linoleic or oleic, depending on the hybrid type grown.
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.
Development work is continuing. In 1995, the members of the U. S. National Sunflower Association (NSA) determined that the existing fatty acid structure of sunflower oil needed to be changed. After visiting with large domestic oil users and USDA plant breeders, it was determined that a mid-level oleic sunflower oil would be the best product to consider.
An entirely new class of sunflower variety was developed by the U.S. National Sunflower Association, named "NuSun™", which first became available in 1998 for commercial production. NuSun™ oil is significantly higher in oleic acid and therefore lower in linoleic acid than traditional sunflower oil.