A sunny history

In 3000 BC our ancestors were not watching will-they-won’t they comedies on Netflix or FaceTiming their pet dog while on a conference, instead they were sowing the seeds for our future existence. No, that’s not a metaphor designed to elicit empathy for those who came before us but fact. Our ancestors were getting busy with sunflower seeds. The very plant that would later become synonymous with happiness and its seeds synonymous with pre-dinner snacking.

The story of the sunflower is fascinating. The plant traversed the world for centuries before it was crowned with the international congeniality its known for today. Native to North America in present day Arizona and New Mexico, the sunflower was cultivated into a single headed plant and crop farmed by American Indians. In an era where nothing went to waste, the sunflower proved to be versatile in its use with archaeologists suggesting it was domesticated before corn.

Cherokee and other American Indian tribes quickly discovered the nutritional benefits of the sunflower seed’s natural fat and oil content and introduced the plant into their diet. Seeds were ground into flour and used in cakes, breads and as a thickening agent in soups, or simply cracked and eaten as a snack.

Beyond dietary usage, the plant’s bright yellow petals were used to make dye for textiles and body paint, its oil used to moisturise skin and hair, and the leftover stem used as building material. In some cases the sunflower was also used medicinally on snake bites and other wounds.  

The impressive versatile nature of the sunflower soon caught the attention of the Old World (Europe) when the Spanish explored the New World (The Americas) and brought seeds home c. 1500. Fields of bright, yellow flowers popped up all over Europe and were originally grown as a decorative plant with ornamental purpose. Probably sitting in a vase on a mantle in a sitting room with a forlorn housekeeper standing behind them wondering how strong you need to be to actually tear this plant from the ground (answer: very strong).

The beauty of the sunflower in Europe erupted, inspiring the works of Impressionist-era artists including Van Gogh, and even caught the attention of Russian Tsar Peter the Great, who on a trip to the Netherlands became besotted with the plant. His adoration compelled him to take some seeds home and have them planted in his native Russia because he simply could not live without them.

If North America was the sunflower’s first home, Russia would become its second and the place where its popularity historically soared. Following on from a 1716 patent in England which introduced oil to be squeezed from the flower, in 1830 Russia was the first European country to cultivate the plant commercially for oil production.

The sunflower was still enjoying modest notoriety at this point until the Russian Orthodox Church got involved, and then its popularity exploded in a similar unexplainable turn of events typically reserved for comeback kid makeovers in teen movies. 

The Church allowed the consumption of sunflower oil during Lent (a pre-Easter period of fasting) while many other oils were banned, and the people hopped on board the sunflower train. Commercialisation of the oil grew and in a short time after 2 million acres of the plant were being farmed on Russian soil and exported throughout Europe, making it one of the country’s most profitable commodities.

The government saw the plant’s rapid economical potential and enlisted scientist V.S. Pustovoit, a member of the USSR Academy of Sciences and the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, to further his research in the field of sunflowers. He spearheaded one of the plant’s most successful breeding programs in history and today the highest honour conferred to individuals in the sunflower industry is named after him.

The sunflower in Russia became an everyday essential – the same way a pillow is essential to a bed, or a Beyonce song is essential to a spin class – sunflower oil became essential to cooking. And so when Russians started immigrating to North America in the mid-1800s they took the seeds of their beloved plant with them, marking the sunflower’s return to its founding home.

The sunflower’s North American homecoming was quiet with no confetti-bombs insight. It took commercial industries a while to realise the plant’s cash potential in the oil industry; instead the plant was being marketed to green thumbs in the 1880s. The most popular breed at the time was called ‘Mammoth Russian’, an easy to grow tall perrenial.

The plant’s seeds were then sold as a chicken silage until finally in 1926 The Missouri Sunflower Growers Association began to extract oil from the seed. The popularity of sunflower oil grew in North America, just as it did in Europe, and by the 1980s the US was producing more than 5 million acres of the plant. The sunflower’s popularity was also bolstered by cholesterol concerns with its oil promising to be a healthier frying alternative to beef tallows – even McDonald’s switched to vegetable oils (including sunflower) in the 1990s to fry their famous fries.

Today the sunflower is a part of everyday life, we can’t imagine life without them because we don’t know an existence without them – their ascent into popularity was 5000 years in the making. The plant’s oil is a pantry staple and its flower a permanent fixture in gardens, florists and even galleries where people travel the world to see them depicted in Van Gogh’s famous paintings.

The sunflower’s overwhelming popularity is pretty simple because it’s the plant that teaches society how to give without taking. It’s a perennial plant that gives hope to even the most novice gardeners, it provides food in the form of oil, flour and seeds, and brings maximum joy to people – the type of flower that can say sorry, thank you and I love you all at once. It’s a winning trifecta and the reason why humans have travelled with this plant for so long, the same way the sunflower travels with the sun because good things come from warmth, light and happiness.

This article was originally published in Lunch Lady Issue 12, photo of artist Yayoi Kusama.

Lisa Marie Corso