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Kansas: The Sunflower State

Posted by Megan Rohleder on Apr 29, 2022

By: Lauren Gray, Head of Reference

Ask anyone what their favorite road trip snack is, and sunflower seeds will likely appear somewhere between corn nuts and Doritos. While the spit-and-flick motion is ubiquitous to long car rides, sunflowers have a long history in Kansas both for their aesthetic appeal and nutritional value.

Native to North America, there are 67 different varieties of sunflower (Helianthus Annuus). It grows best in full sun and well-drained soil. Although the sunflower is the state flower of Kansas, it is found as far north as Minnesota and Saskatchewan and as far south as Texas. Sunflowers can be either annual or perennial, depending on the variety. The sunflower is remarkably sturdy and can be grown easily in most types of soil due to its deep roots (up to six feet!) and drought tolerance. However, the domestic crop in the United States is prone to pests, and sunflowers use a relatively high amount of insecticide compared to other crops. Sunflowers also deplete the soil, so they are not grown commercially in the same spot every year.

According to the National Sunflower Association, the domestication of the sunflower may predate that of corn (maize). Early American Indian tribes cultivated sunflowers for their seeds, which could be ground, roasted, or harvested for their oil. The plant could also be used for dye in textiles, and when dried the stalk could be used as a building material. Sunflowers also served a ceremonial function.

Even today, sunflowers also provide crucial winter food for wildlife, if the field is left uncleared after the harvest. Wildlife, including migratory birds, deer, even bear and moose, are attracted to sunflower fields in the spring and summer for the dense foliage and nutritional seeds.

Early European colonizers were enchanted with the sunflower, and Spaniards transported it to Europe in the 16th century. While its use was mainly ornamental, sunflower seeds gained popularity in Russia in the 18th century because their oil could be consumed during Lent. Extracting sunflower oil became a major industry in Russia.

Increased emigration from the Baltics in the 1880s brought the sunflower back to the United States. Russian emigrants carried the seeds with them to Kansas and the Midwest. The seeds were cultivated both as a feed for livestock and humans, and for their oil.

In 2022, there are two commercially grown types of sunflowers: The Oilseed variety is grown for its oil; and the Non-Oilseed variety is grown for food products and ornamentation. Most consumers will recognize the large, round yellow-petaled single-stalk flower, but there are many smaller varieties that grow like weeds along railroad tracks and fence lines.

Sunflower imagery is present in many aspects of Kansas’s history.

The brightly colored petals and lush foliage evoke a fruitful and bountiful landscape, which appealed to many farmers who immigrated to the state. (Ironically, today the sunflower is grown in high-salinity soil in regions too arid to support other crops.)

There are few state flowers better known than the Kansas sunflower (officially adopted in 1903), and its image is promoted through advertisements, post cards, political messaging, and artwork.

 

 

The sunflower’s use is promoted through the Kansas Sunflower Commission, which is responsible for ensuring the economic viability of growing the crop commercially. The sunflower’s enduring appeal makes it a fixture in the legacy of the state, and Kansas wouldn’t be quite as ‘sunny’ without it.

Bibliography and additional reading:

https://extension.umn.edu/flowers/sunflowers

https://www.sunflowernsa.com/  

https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/sunflower/16899 


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