Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Sunflowers
Nature Bulletin No. 497-A   Septembver 8, 1973
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

No plant seems to fit its name so closely as the sunflower. The broad disk of the flower head with its ring of flaming yellow rays resembles those symbols that man has used to represent the sun since ancient times.

In summer and early autumn the most conspicuous bands and masses of rich yellow and orange in our landscapes are added by the sunflowers. All originated in North America and all but a few are centered in the United States. Of the sixty-odd species, most are native of the sun-drenched prairies and other open areas. In a dozen western states you can drive hour after hour and day after day between long golden rows of sunflowers that stretch to the horizon.

The sunflower is the only plant, used world-wide as a crop, which has been domesticated in the United States. For hundreds of thousands of years before white men came to this country the American Indians cultivated at least two kinds of sunflowers. The most important one, a native of the Great Plains, was a tall coarse branching species with many showy flower heads. From it, at an early date, the Indians developed the single-headed, unbranched type which we know as the Common, or Garden Sunflower. Under cultivation this is one of the largest annual plants known, with a stem up to 15 feet tall, lined with huge rough leaves, and topped with a head that may be 20 inches across and producing 5000 or more seeds. These abundant, fat-filled, vitamin-rich, nut-like seeds were eaten raw; or were slightly parched and ground into flour for making bread, cakes or rich soups. Also, the oil was extracted by boiling the crushed seeds and used as a hair dressing, for softening leather, and in cooking. A yellow dye was obtained from the flowers, and a textile fiber from the large stalks.

From its original home on the Great Plains this cultivated sunflower passed from tribe to tribe until it was grown from coast to coast. In the early 1600's the great French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, found Indians on the east coast of Lake Huron planting it in their gardens. Soon afterward this garden sunflower was introduced into Europe. Since then, sunflower farming has spread around the world and it has become an important crop in Hungary, Russia, Egypt, Turkey, India, Peru and western Canada. Like most other world crops, it thrives better in foreign countries than in its ancestral home because it has left a multitude of pests and diseases behind. The seeds are used as food for man, livestock and poultry. The oil has fine qualities for table use, for making soap, and in industry. The seeds are unexcelled as a food to offer our winter song birds.

Another sunflower, the Jerusalem Artichoke, also was domesticated centuries ago by the Indians. The wild form, a native of our northern states and southern Canada, has small edible underground parts but the cultivated type has tubers that may be as large as medium-sized potatoes. When cooked they are grayish and soggy with a sort of woodsy or nutty flavor which some people find palatable, others do not. It likewise was taken to Europe in early times and is now grown there more than in America. The name is misleading because it is not a true artichoke nor does it have anything to do with Jerusalem. That is merely a corruption of the Italian name for it -- "girasole".

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