Sunflower seeds come from the usually bright yellow, large, single headed and single stemmed sunflower plant.
The sunflower plant is actually made up of 1,000 – 2,000 individual flowers that are all joined together at one receptacle at the stem of the plant.
Each of these individual flowers form a sunflower seed. At the end of the growing season the head of the plant which contains the sunflower seeds dries out and the seeds are harvested.
What Countries Grow Sunflower Seeds?
Most of the world’s sunflower seeds come from Ukraine and Russia, by far! Ukraine and Russia are responsible for producing anywhere from 50% – 80% of the world’s sunflower seeds.
This makes sense, because it was Russia that cultivated our modern day sunflower plants.
Sunflower seeds are grown throughout most of Ukraine and in the Volga, Southern, and Central regions of Russia. Sunflower seeds are also grown in many other countries including the European Union, Argentina, Turkey, China and the United States.
What States Grow Sunflower Seeds?
In the United States, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota are the top producers of sunflower seeds.
When the modern sunflower plant made its way back to North America it came to the United States by way of Canada, down through North Dakota and Minnesota. The central and western regions of North and South Dakota and the far western counties of Minnesota are still the biggest producers of sunflower seeds for the U.S..
Sunflower seeds are also grown in other states mainly located in the central plains. Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado also grow sunflower seeds, but to a much lesser degree.
Where Do Sunflower Plants Come From?
Sunflower plants are one of the few plants that are native to North America. Wild sunflower plants were originally cultivated by the Native Americans way back in about 3,000 BCE.
They used the sunflower seeds for a food snack, ground the seeds into meal and flour for bread, they squeezed the oil and used it for cooking and for their skin and hair. They also used the purple dye for textiles, pottery and body art.
The sunflower was also used medicinally to treat snake bites and the dried stalks were used as building materials.
Fast forward a few thousand years, and sunflower seeds were introduced to Europe by returning Spanish explorers in around 1500.
The sunflower plant began spreading across the continent mainly as an ornamental plant, but became very popular in Western Europe, after Peter the Great saw the plants in Holland and brought them back to Russia for cultivation.
It was Russia that really set to work on developing a sunflower plant that would produce more oil. Originally the oil content of a sunflower plant was about 28%. By the mid 1800’s Russia had developed a sunflower plant with the oil content having increased to about 50%.
By the early 19th century, this high oil producing cultivated sunflower plant was being grown at a commercial level, with an added boost to demand provided by the Russian Orthodox Church, forbidding most other oil producing foods from being consumed during Lent, but leaving sunflower off of that list.
At the end of the 19th century, Russia’s sunflower plant had made its way back to North America, and by the 1930’s Canada had its own breeding program and the U.S. had begun processing the sunflower plant for oil.
Sunflower plant acreage spread down from Canada into North Dakota and Minnesota and in the mid 1970’s the U.S. hybridized the sunflower plant to increase yield and disease resistance and make enhancements to the oil.
Russia’s cultivated sunflower plant has two different types or purposes for the plant. The first, and most popular type of sunflower plant is the oil-producing variety which is harvested and pressed to obtain the sunflower oil and what’s left is usually used as livestock or poultry feed. The second type of sunflower plant is what’s called a confectionery or non-oil producing plant and these seeds are used for food.
Today’s cultivated sunflower plants are still mainly grown in Russia and Ukraine for the sunflower seed oil. Demand for the oil is high globally, with sunflower seed oil being the third most consumed cooking oil after palm and soybean oil.
The oil from sunflower plants is considered to be a healthy food option due to being low in saturated fats and high in monounsaturated fatty acids which may reduce heart disease and polyunsaturated fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6.
A much smaller percentage of sunflower plant acreage is dedicated to growing the plants for the sunflower seeds to be consumed either by humans or birds. Sunflower seeds can be part of a healthy diet due to being a good source of fiber, being cholesterol-free and containing essential nutrients like Iron and Vitamin E.
Some farmers are also starting to use the sunflower plant to add more variety to their crop rotation and help the soil. The sunflower plants have deep roots that will break-up the soil and introducing a new plant helps interrupt the disease cycle for the more popular small grain crops.
Where Do Sunflowers Grow Best?
Sunflowers grow well in all but the most extreme hardiness zones. They can thrive in zones from 2 – 11 and their best growing temperatures are in a range from 64F – 91F.
The main requirements for growing the best sunflowers are areas that have sun, space, shelter and occasional saturation. Sunflower plants need 6 – 8 hours of full sun a day and are heliotropic (which is cool!) so the heads will follow the sun across the sky.
Sunflower plants grow best when given enough space to spread out. Some sunflower plants can grow to a height of over 16 feet and have heads that can be 12 inches across.
Due to the height of some sunflower plants, it’s important to grow them in areas that are sheltered from strong winds or it may be necessary to add additional support to the plants early in their growth.
Sunflowers are considered to be drought resistant due to their long tap root being able to draw water from deeper depths than most plants, but do need a location where occasional deep waterings or heavy rains are possible.
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