A Moment of Science

Sunflowers: A North American Crop

IU doctoral graduates make the case for an eastern U.S. origin of the domestication of sunflowers.

Single yellow sunflower in focus, with field of sunflowers behind

Photo: RHiNO NEAL

Helianthus annuus, a beautiful domesticated crop.

Sunflowers have long been associated with the sun because they follow its movement in the sky.

In fact, sunflowers were important to the religious practices of the Aztecs, a Mesoamerican culture that revered the sun and used a solar calendar.

A North American Crop

Sunflower, Helianthus annuus, is a crop that has many uses. The seeds of a sunflower can be used to make oil or provide a tasty snack for you or for the birds that visit your bird feeder; the leaves can be fed to cattle; and the fibrous stalk can be used to make paper.

Although sunflowers are now grown in many places worldwide, the sunflower is a New World crop – it originated in the Americas.

A new study of domesticated sunflowers has determined that sunflowers are one of the few crops first domesticated in North America. A team led by an Indiana University doctoral graduate Benjamin Blackman has found that H. annuus was first domesticated in the Mississippi River Valley, probably in the area of present-day Arkansas.

Results May Lay A Controversy To Rest

There has been some disagreement as to the place where sunflower domestication first took place. It had been previously argued that sunflower domestication occurred in two places independently – eastern North America and Mexico.

However, Blackman’s team discovered that current sunflower populations in both the United States and Mexico descend from a lineage of eastern U.S. sunflowers.

This discovery helps to support the theory that the eastern U.S. was a center of crop domestication independent from the larger centers of domestication in South America, the Middle East, and Africa.

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Erin Sweany

Erin is a graduate student at Indiana University studying early English medical texts. Erin has studied both science and literature throughout her academic career. She loves science for what it tells us about our world and literature for what it tells us about our culture. Erin combines these interests in her scholarship and writing as much as possible.

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