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Wild sunflowers: yellow petals with black centers

Wild sunflowers or Black-Eyed Susan flowers

Where do sunflowers grow wild?

Sunflowers grew wild all over North America. From the Paleo-Indian time on, many different groups of people picked sunflowers and ate the little seeds.

Where do sunflower seeds come from?

Sunflower seeds grow in the middle of the flower, packed tightly together. They are a good source of fat. People who live by hunting and gathering always need more fat to eat, because wild animals and fish have very little fat. So sunflower seeds have always been a popular food.

How do you eat sunflower seeds?

Some people just ate the sunflower seeds. You have to crack the hard shell with your teeth and spit it out. Then you can eat the inside sunflower seed. Other people broke the shells off and then ground the seeds up into flour. They mixed the flour with water to bake a flat bread, like pita bread.

A sunflower with a much larger centerWho were the first people to farm sunflowers?

By about 3000-2000 BC, in the Late Archaic period, people in south-western North America (modern Mexico) began to farm sunflowers (grew them on purpose). Farmers chose the biggest seeds from the biggest flowers to plant for the next crop. So sunflowers evolved to have bigger and bigger seeds, and more of them.

The Cherokee also farmed sunflowers

About the same time, people like the Cherokee along the East Coast of North America also independently began to farm sunflowers.

How are farmed sunflowers different from wild sunflowers?

This picture shows a domesticated (farmed) sunflower. It has a bigger middle than the wild ones, and bigger seeds. Sunflowers, like olives in Ancient Greece and West Asia and North Africa, became an important food for people in North America, because of the fat they provided.

Aztec people ate sunflower seeds

As far south as southern Mexico, the Aztecs also ate a lot of sunflower seeds. At Aztec temples to the Sun the priestesses wore crowns made of sunflowers.

Europeans and sunflowers

A happy white farmer holding a giant sunflowerWhen the European invaders came to North America and South America in the 1500s AD, people showed them how to grow sunflowers too. Spanish explorers brought sunflower seeds back to Europe with them.

Russia and sunflower oil

At first, people in Europe grew sunflowers mainly for decoration. But by the 1830s people were farming sunflowers in Russia for their oil.

A field of sunflowers in Russia

A field of sunflowers in bloom in Russia

The United States and Canada grow sunflowers

Then Russian people moving to the United States and Canada in the 1900s brought sunflower seeds back with them.

In the 1930s, the Canadian government encouraged farmers to grow more sunflowers for food in Canada. By the 1970s this idea spread south into the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Kansas.

Where do sunflower seeds come from today?

Today people in southern Europe also grow a lot of sunflowers for their oil. There are huge sunflower fields all over southern France and northern Italy. But Russia, Ukraine, and Argentina are still the leading places that grow sunflowers.

Are there still wild sunflowers?

Wild sunflowers still grow all over North America today. You may know them as Black-eyed Susans.

Learn by doing: eat some sunflower seeds or grow a sunflower
More about Native American food

Bibliography and further reading about sunflowers:

More about sweet potatoes
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