Forkways: Forklore - Sunflowers

Common Sunflower
Helianthus annuus.
Domestication: approximately 4,000 years ago in North America
Native form: Helianthus annuus
though domestication drastically increased the seed size
Currently has three known variations. Over 60 species.
First written account: 1568, Rembert Dodoens

The sunflower is most commonly identified as a flower. It is part of the Asteraceae family. The sunflower played an important role in early American agriculture for many tribes across what is now the United States. Archaeological evidence suggests that propagation of sunflowers predates the spread of maize from Mesoamerica. The crop played an important role in the transition between nomadic and sedentary lifestyles. Sunflowers were used as a part of the Three Sisters agricultural system. They attracted pollinators and are considered on of the other sisters. The scientific name comes from the Greek word helios meaning sun or star and anthos meaning flower.

Edible parts: seeds, yellow florets
Edible uses: raw, roasted, cooked, dried, ground, oil source
Sunflower seeds can be eaten raw or roasted. They can be used to make flour for bread, used for porridge, or utilized as a source for oil. Crushed seeds could be molded into compact balls for ease of travel.

Medicinal parts: flowerheads, petals, roots, leaves
Traditionally used to treat kidney issues, chest pains, rheumatism, sores, and snakebites.

Folk beliefs and additional usage:
sunflower growing nearby will protect from malaria
plentiful sunflowers will foretell an abundant harvest
when the sunflowers were tall and in full bloom, the buffaloes were fat with good meat
oil used ceremonially by coating the hair and body
boil seeds in water to create dye

Chamberlin, R. V. (1911). The ethno-botany of the Gosiute Indians. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 24-99. Fowler, Catherine S. (1989). Willard Z. Park's Ethnographic Noted on the Northern Paiute of Western Nevada, 1933-1944. Vol 1. University of Utah Anthropological Papers No. 114, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City. Gilmore, M.R. 1977 (1919). Uses of plants by the Indians of the Missouri River region. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Reprint of a work first published as the 33rd Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology. Washington, D.C. Kelly, I. T. (1932). Ethnography of the Surprise Valley Paiute. Berkeley: University of California Press. Kershaw, L. (2000) Edible & Medicinal Plants of the Rockies. Edmonton, Canada: Lone Pine Publishing. Mahar, J. M., & Ebihara, M. (1965). Ethnobotany of the Oregon Paiutes of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Cascade Microfilm Systems. Moerman, D. E. (1998). Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press.


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