Annual Sunflower

Scientific Name

Helianthus annuus L.

Alternate Names

common sunflower, Kansas sunflower, mirasol; Helianthus comes from the Greek helios anthos, meaning “sun flower” (Kindscher 1987). The species name annuus means “annual.”



The sunflower is a native domesticated crop. During the last 3,000 years, Indians increased the seed size approximately 1,000 percent. They gradually changed the genetic composition of the plant by repeatedly selecting the largest seeds (Yarnell 1978).

Originally cultivated by North American Indians, it has a long and interesting history as a food plant (Kindscher 1987). Sunflower seeds were and still are eaten raw, roasted, cooked, dried, and ground, and used as a source of oil. Flower buds were boiled. The roasted seeds have been used as a coffee substitute. The Mescalero and Chiricahua Apache made extensive use of wild sunflowers. The Hidatsa used wild verse cultivated sunflowers in the production of cooking oil because the seeds of their smaller flower heads produced superior oil (Wilson 1917). In the Northeast, sunflowers are part of the Onandaga (Iroquois) creation myth (Gilmore 1977). In the Southwest, the Hopi believe that when the sunflowers are numerous, it is a sign that there will be an abundant harvest (Whiting 1939). In the prairies, the Teton Dakota had a saying, “when the sunflowers were tall and in full bloom, the buffaloes were fat and the meat good” (Gilmore 1977).

Helianthus seeds were eaten by many California natives, and often ground up and mixed with other seeds in pinole (Strike 1994). The sunflower was used for food in Mexico and had reputed medicinal value in soothing chest pains (Heiser 1976). Francisco Hernandez, an early Spanish explorer, ascribed aphrodisiac powers to the sunflower (Ibid.).

Charles H. Lange, an anthropologist at the University of Texas, wrote that “among the Cochiti, a reliable ‘home remedy’ for cuts and other wounds is the juice of freshly crushed sunflower stems. The juice is smeared liberally over the wounds, bandaged, and invariably results in a speedy recovery, with never a case of infection” (Heiser 1976).

According to Moerman (1986) sunflowers were used in the following ways:

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