Annual sunflowers have 5,000-year history

June 23, 2021

Americans seem to always seek new horizons, new adventures and new places to live. Why else would over 400,000 pioneers walk the 2,170-mile trail from Missouri to Oregon? The big-wheeled wagons, jokingly called prairie schooners, dug deep ruts that are still visible today. The disturbed soil was perfect for native sunflowers to sprout and bloom along much of the route.

Annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) have been grown by Native Americans for nearly 5,000 years. They are called sunflowers because their flowers turn to face the sun.

The protein-rich seeds are eaten raw or roasted, and often ground into meal to add to baked goods, soups, stews. Due to their huge compound blossoms, sunflowers provide the biggest seed crop of all flowers. The seeds are rich in B-complex vitamins, folic acid, vitamin E, iron, manganese, calcium, zinc, magnesium and selenium. Eating sunflower seeds helps lower cholesterol and regulate blood sugar levels. It is used to treat anxiety and neurosis. The seeds are fed to poultry and livestock. Sunflower oil is extracted by boiling the seeds.

The Hopi use sunflowers in their traditional medicine to treat spider bites. They use oil to treat warts and even snakebites.

You can grow the exact sunflower that the Hopi grow, called Hopi Black Dye Sunflower. This is a tall sunflower growing up to eight feet high. The flower-heads are huge, often reaching 18 inches across. The bright-yellow single petals surround a stunning deep purple-green center. Many side branches are good for cut flowers. But it is the oil-rich, brilliant jet-black seeds that are most valuable. As the name implies, Hopi Black Dye sunflowers are used for dyeing not only fabrics such as cotton, wool and other fibers, but also to dye traditional Hopi basketry. The dyes will vary including lavender, light gray, deep purple and black, depending on which dyeing technique is used.

It isn't too late to plant sunflowers. Never start sunflowers indoors, because they quickly become pale without full sun, and their growth is permanently stunted when transplanted.

Sow the seeds directly into the garden. Plant the seeds 1/2 inch deep, six inches apart, in rows two to three feet apart. 

They will germinate in 10-14 days. Choose a spot with full sun to light shade in soil that is well-drained. Hopi Black Dye Sunflowers make an effective windbreak, and you can train vining beans up their stalks.

Seeds are often available from local nurseries and garden centers or by mail from specialty seedhouses such as Fedco Seeds ( and High Mowing Seeds ( or by phone at 866-735-4454).

Whether you grow Hopi Black Dye sunflowers for a brilliant windbreak, a trellis for beans, seeds to snack on for you and the birds, or to dye your own fabrics, you will not be disappointed. 

There is something to be said for a plant that has been used for thousands of years. And you don’t even have to walk across America on the Oregon Trail.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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