The common sunflower Helianthus annuus originated in North America and evidence shows that it was cultivated as early as 3000 BCE by Native Americans in the south west and the plant was eventually distributed throughout the continent and grown alongside corn, beans and squash. It was used for food, oil, medicine, fibers, dye and more. The original wild plant was small seeded and multi branching. Through the selection process the first breeders created a larger seeded and flowering, single stalk plant.
Scientifically sunflower is known as Helianthus annuus derived from the Greek Helios-sun and anthos-flower and annuus means annual. Interestingly the Spanish word for sunflower, girasol, describes its property of always turning toward the sun. Sunflowers are in the Asteraceae/Daisy family which is characterized mainly by its flowers. Like other members of this family the sunflower head is actually compromised of many small disc and ray florets that together appear to be a single flower. Other common flowers in this family include Echinacea, Shasta Daisy and Dandelion.
Around 1500 CE the Spanish brought seeds back to Europe where it quickly became popular ornamentally and for food. By the 1700s it was cultivated by the British as an oil crop and in the early 1800s it became an important food and oil crop in Russia where millions of acres were under cultivation in the 19th century. The Europeans and Russians continued to breed the sunflower and create varieties specifically for food and oil production. By the later 1800s these varieties, such as Russian Mammoth, returned to North America with Russian and Mennonite immigrants. Another variety, Tarahumara Sunflower, is believed to have been transplanted from Canada by Mennonite immigrants to the Tarahumara region in Mexico.
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