Spanish explorers returned to Europe with seeds some time in the late 16th century, and the sunflower’s cultivation as a decorative annual spread. English authorities issued a patent for extracting oil from the seeds in 1716, and by the late 18th century, sunflowers were being grown almost exclusively for this purpose. Peter the Great was a proponent of sunflower oil, and encouraged its spread east into Russia. Commercial processing of sunflower oil emerged around 1830.
The Russian Orthodox Church forbids the consumption of a number of oils during Lent, but sunflower oil never made the list. As a result, Russian farmers were growing over 2 million acres of the plant by the mid-19th century. Russian breeders began to break sunflowers into two categories: One type for higher oil content, and another type that produced larger seeds for human consumption. V.S. Pustovoit is credited with developing a significantly high-oil variety. By the end of the century, seeds had made their way back to North America in the hands of Russian and East European immigrants. Seed companies began to advertise Mammoth Russian sunflowers around 1880. Commercial processing of sunflower oil in North America began in the mid-1920s. The cake left over after pressing the seeds for oil became a useful feed for livestock.
In 1930, the Canadian government launched its own breeding program, and a small crushing plant was unveiled in 1946. The demand for sunflower oil spread into the northern US states. In 1964, the government of Canada began licensing a Russian cultivar called Peredovik for its extremely high oil content, and the first hybrids began to appear in the 1970s. By then, there were over 5 million acres of sunflowers being grown in the US alone, and much of this was being exported back to Europe, as it was much cheaper to produce than olive oil, and healthier than animal lard.
Today, of course, there are scores of varieties to choose from, including the really huge types, smaller, compact varieties, pollen-less types for the floral market, and heirlooms that date back to cultivation in Italy, China, and elsewhere. A wide range of colours, sizes, and seed types are now available. A number of varieties have also been bred to produce substantially more oil than Peredovik.
Sunflowers are members of the family Asteraceae, which all form a composite head (capitulum) made of masses of simple flowers (florets) that each produce a seed if successfully pollinated. Sunflowers typically have between 1,000 to 1,400 florets, and potential seeds, per head. The capitulum is surrounded by petals, making the whole structure seem like one single flower. This family is vast, and includes daisies, chicories, dandelions, and, strangely, lettuce.
Sunflowers earned their name due to a curious process called heliotropism. During the budding stage of growth, the heads of nearly all sunflowers face east at dawn, and follow the sun throughout the day, facing west at dusk. A flexible piece of the stem (the pulvinis), just below the flower bud enables this curious movement. One other remarkable ability of the sunflower is its use in extracting toxic ingredients from soil. Not only can the plants draw up lead and arsenic, but they were used after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl to draw up the radioactive chemicals cesium, uranium, and strontium. This is a long-term process known as phytoextraction, but is thought to be less environmentally disruptive than other methods.
Near the end of July, the town of Altona, Manitoba, celebrates the Manitoba Sunflower Festival, an event that has been running for nearly 50 years. Events include live music, Mennonite food and crafts, a quilt show, motorcycle stunts, a dog show, petting zoo, baseball, farm markets, and the crowning of Manitoba’s Sunflower Queen.
Bloom time: Summer to mid-autumn.