Learn the history and get tips and tricks for growing sunflowers | North Salem Real Estate

History of the Sunflower

Like corn and dry beans, the sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is native  to North America, and was first domesticated by Native Americans in Arizona and  New Mexico around 3000 bc. They cultivated the sunflower for its seeds, which  they pounded into meal for cakes, mush, and bread; the oil from the seeds was  rubbed onto their skin and hair. Spanish explorers first encountered these  strikingly beautiful plants early in the sixteenth century on their forays  northward into what was to become the American Southwest. By 1550, sunflowers  had been brought back to Spain and Mediterranean Europe for use as an ornamental  flower, and the culture then spread eastward to Egypt, India, and Russia. In  1716, the English patented a process for squeezing oil from sunflower seeds. The  Russians, however, deserve credit for turning sunflowers into a food crop.

Russian Influence

Olive oil was the natural choice for cooking in Southern Europe because the  olive tree was so well suited to the warm, arid climate of the Mediterranean  basin. But Russia was not blessed with the same climate, which meant that it had  to import oil from the south. When Russians discovered that copious amounts of  oil could be pressed from sunflower seeds, the crop took the country by storm.  By the eighteenth century, sunflowers were being extensively cultivated in  Russia as an oilseed crop. Peter the Great was a great champion of sunflowers,  and the Russian Orthodox Church forbade the consumption of all oils except  sunflower during Lent. There is historic evidence of commercial oil production  in Russia as early as 1769. Russian farmers and plant breeders should be given  credit for selecting and improving sunflowers and turning them into a field  crop. Yields and standability increased at the same time as a sunflower oil  industry developed. By the nineteenth century, Russia had become a major  exporter of sunflower oil to Europe; two million acres of sunflowers were being  grown there at the time. Some of the sunflower varieties that we grow in our  gardens today, like Mammoth Russian and Black Giant, were actually developed  centuries ago north of the Black Sea in Russia. These varieties were rather  noteworthy at the time because of their almost two-foot-diameter seed heads.

Interest in cultivating sunflowers began to grow here in North America during  the 1880s. Progressive plantsmen and other forward-thinking individuals of the  era turned to Russia for improved varieties of the very sunflowers that had  originated here hundreds of years earlier. Missouri seems to have been one of  the first areas in the United States to widely adopt the crop. A growers’ association was established in 1926, followed shortly after by the first  commercial production of sunflower oil in the country. Sunflower seed was also  brought into Canada by Russian immigrants who settled on the prairies. A  sunflower-breeding program was initiated by the Canadian government in 1930; the  plant breeding material came from Russian Mennonite immigrants. Canada’s first  sunflower-seed-oil-crushing plant came online in 1946. Due to its popularity  north of the border and the ideal climate of the high plains, sunflower acreage  soon spread southward into the wheat country of northwestern Minnesota and North  Dakota. This area has remained the epicenter of sunflower culture since World  War II.

The Rise of the Hybrid Sunflowers

Sunflowers remained a relatively minor crop throughout the 1950s and 1960s  because demand for the oil was not great and efficient harvesting machinery had  not yet been developed. Acreage continued to increase slowly in the Canadian  prairie provinces, and the Canadian government licensed the Russian variety  Peredovik for widespread planting in 1964. The most amazing thing about  sunflower culture in North America during this era was that only open-pollinated  nonhybrid varieties were being planted by farmers. Hybrid corn — produced by  crossing one corn variety with a mate that had been detasseled — had been the  norm since the late 1930s, but this was not the case for sunflowers. This  process couldn’t be done with sunflowers because there was no way to turn one  plant into a male and another into a female. But this all changed in the 1970s  when sunflower breeders were finally able to isolate cytoplasmic male sterile  lines to use as the female parent in the hybridization process. The very first  sunflower hybrids were released in the mid-’70s. This corresponded with an  increased public acceptance of vegetable oils as animal fats declined in  popularity. European demand for sunflower oil had also begun to outstrip Russian  production, and with new higher-producing sunflower hybrids and an extra-strong  demand for oil in Southern Europe, American farmers began to plant more acres of  this crop than ever before. The US yearly production finally exceeded five  million acres for the first time in the late 1970s. Sunflower production had  finally emerged from inconsequence.

Sunflowers have really come into their own since the first hybrids were  released in the 1970s. Growing crops that would stand up to blustery fall winds  had always been a problem in the early days of sunflower growing, and anyone who  has ever grown open-pollinated Mammoth Russian sunflowers in their garden knows  how these tall plants with their top-heavy seed heads like to fall over once  they begin to ripen. Since hybrid sunflowers are much shorter in stature and  have stronger stalks, they will stand well into late fall, which allows for  excellent in-field drying and an easier harvest; potential yields have increased  to more than a ton to the acre under ideal growing conditions. However, the most  important advances that have been made in sunflower breeding have been in the  disease- and pest-resistance departments.

Sunflowers have always been a prime target for a host of fungal and bacterial  attacks, from white mold to anthracnose. Insects are also a major concern. But  modern hybrid varieties have been selected and bred to withstand some of these  pressures.

The heart of sunflower culture in the United States is in the northern  plains. Sixty percent of the crop is grown in northwestern Minnesota and North  Dakota, and all of the advances that have been made in breeding sunflowers have  been made in this area as well. The USDA has a sunflower-breeding station in  Fargo, North Dakota; North Dakota State University (NDSU) is also quite active  in developing new and improved sunflower varieties. A small number of seed  companies breed and distribute sunflower seed in the area, most of them located  on the Minnesota side of the Red River. Dahlgren of Crookston, Minnesota, is one  of the oldest sunflower seed companies and can be credited with many of the  early advances in hybridization. Croplan Genetics of Mentor, Minnesota, a  division of Land O’Lakes, is a major supplier of seed to the market. Seeds 2000  in Breckenridge, Minnesota, is a newer company that is leading the way with a  lineup of certified organic sunflower seed. If you are seriously interested in  raising sunflowers, you will have to source seed from this part of the country,  but all of these outfits have some untreated conventional seed. Most companies  are willing to take your credit card number, box up a bag of seed, and send out  to us here in the Northeast by UPS.


Types of Sunflowers


Before you order seed, it might be a good idea to familiarize yourself with  all the different options out there in the world of sunflowers. Why do you want  to grow sunflowers and what do you plan to do with them once they are harvested?  There are two basic types of sunflowers — black oil seed and confectionary.  Confectionary sunflower seeds are larger (eight to twelve millimeters) and have  a characteristic white stripe running across their outer seed coat. Because they  are larger and contain more inner “meat,” these seeds are hulled to make the  sunflower seeds we eat as snack food. Confectionary sunflowers contain only 30  to 40 percent oil. For some reason, they seem to grow better out in North Dakota  than here; in addition, hulling sunflower seeds is even more specialized and  difficult than hulling oats or spelt. The infrastructure and knowledge for  hulling confectionary sunflower seeds simply does not exist out east. As far as  I know, no one has successfully managed to produce snack food sunflower seeds  here in our region. This certainly doesn’t mean that it cannot be done, but it  will take more experimentation with varieties and hulling equipment. Black  oilseed sunflowers, however, seem to be more reliable and easier to produce here  in our region. Their seeds are much smaller in size (4.5 to 8 millimeters) and  contain from 46 to 50 percent oil. These are the same all-black seeds that are  sold for bird feeding. Black oil sunflowers contain less inner meat and are not  recommended for hulling. The production of oil for human consumption and the  resulting by-product of oilseed cake for livestock feeding is the primary end  use for sunflowers grown here in the northeastern United States.

Until recently, the oil that was pressed from black oil sunflower seeds was  linoleic oil. Linoleic sunflower oil has about 69 percent polyunsaturated fat,  20 percent monounsaturated fat, and 11 percent saturated fat. The linoleic  component is a good source of omega-6 fatty acids. There are also some  traditional sunflower varieties that are considered high oleic. The oil that is  pressed from these seeds has at least 80 percent monounsaturated fat and is  quite high in omega-9 fatty acids. Because of competition from and lost market  share to the olive oil industry, the National Sunflower Association began a  breeding program in 1995 to develop a mid-oleic sunflower oil that contained  higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. New sunflower varieties were released onto  the market in 1996 with the trademarked name of NuSun. This oil is nutritionally  superior and better for you, and hydrogenation is not required to make this oil  compatible with commercial frying. It is very stable and resists the oxygenation  that produces rancidity. By 2007, 85 percent of the sunflower oil market was  dominated by NuSun mid-oleic oil. If you have the opportunity to buy seeds of a  NuSun variety, don’t be afraid of the newfangled nomenclature. It is truly  superior oil seed that has been developed by traditional plant-breeding  methods.


Sunflower Culture


Sunflowers have many cultural similarities to corn. They grow best when  planted in well-drained loam soils, and both crops are lovers of sunshine. Corn  transforms sunlight, water, and air into starch and carbohydrates; sunflowers  photosynthesize these same substances in the presence of sunshine into  high-quality oil and protein. Nitrogen is required for the production of  protein, and one of the major differences between the two crops is that a corn  plant will gobble up an inordinate amount of available nitrogen from the soil  environment while sunflowers grow quite well with more moderate nitrogen levels.  A soil rich in the humic substances that slowly release smaller amounts of  nitrogen is best suited for sunflowers. But too much nitrogen is just as harmful  to a sunflower crop as too little. I can speak from personal experience in this  department. Several years ago, I fertilized a small sunflower planting with  profuse amounts of dairy manure. For a while, I thought I had done the right  thing — the growing crop seemed like it was making more progress than  neighboring fields that had not been so heavily fertilized. But after the field  flowered and began to ripen, stalks began breaking. More and more plants fell  over every day, and by harvesttime over half of the sunflowers had fallen to the  ground. Sunflowers are a taprooted crop with an uncanny ability to scavenge  nitrogen and water from deep within the soil profile, so adequate levels of  other essential elements like potassium, magnesium, and phosphorous are just as  important as nitrogen to a sunflower crop. Small amounts of a balanced mineral  fertilizer and a light coating of compost or aged manure should be all that is  necessary. Follow the recommendations of your soil test and limit nitrogen  inputs to no more than eighty units to the  acre.


Choosing the Right Sunflower Variety


Most of us will be planting hybrid sunflowers, and believe it or not, some of  the companies out there are beginning to offer organically grown seed, Seeds  2000 and Blue River Hybrids among them. If you can’t find organic seed, though,  try to buy seed that is untreated. When I first began growing sunflowers in  1998, untreated seed was rare. Because sunflowers grown out in the high plains  are afflicted with so many diseases, seed treatment with fungicides is standard  fare. Thankfully, the organic movement has now grown enough in importance and  market share that seed companies are offering untreated seed as a common  practice. If you find a variety that works well for you, it might be a good idea  to contact your dealer or seed company and reserve untreated seed well in  advance of the coming season. These companies clean and process seed all through  the winter, and a simple early reservation will ensure that you will have the  seed you want the following May when it comes time to plant.

Make sure to choose a variety that fits your growing environment and  microclimate. Hybrid sunflowers are usually classified as short, medium, or full  season. I usually plant sunflowers that are short to medium season because of my  northerly mountainous location. As with any of the crops harvested in October or  November, sunflowers are subject to the weather. Cold rain, snow, and wind are  of course imminent at harvesttime, and dry-down can be slow or nonexistent when  the weather begins to deteriorate. When that two- or three-day window of sunny  weather arrives in mid-October, you want your sunflowers to be dry and ready for  combining. Not much is worse than having a high-yielding crop out there in the  field that is still mushy and not yet ready to harvest when opportunity presents  itself. Once again, I can speak from experience on this subject. It’s better to  have a moderate harvest safely in the bin than it is to have a great harvest out  there being eaten by birds or knocked over by wind and snow. If you are new to  growing sunflowers and want to experiment a little before diving in headfirst, I  recommend doing your own little variety trial. Obtain small amounts of seed for  five or six different hybrid sunflower varieties from several different  companies. Plant out everything side by side in a small plot and evaluate the  performance of the hybrids on your farm. By autumn, the varieties that shine in  your environment will stand out. You will then be able to plant your chosen  variety with confidence in the next growing season.


Growing Sunflowers


Sunflowers usually do well after a nitrogen-contributing crop like sod or  soybeans. Some professional crop advisers don’t like to see sunflowers planted  after soybeans because of the risk of white mold infection. If you saw any white  mold (sclerotinia) in the previous year’s soybeans, don’t plant sunflowers in  the same field, as sunflowers are very susceptible to this fungus. Work the land  into a friable seedbed that is smooth and free of clods before heading to the  field to plant. Sunflowers can go into the ground in mid-May just before the  danger of spring frost has disappeared. Most are seeded in thirty-inch rows with  a conventional corn planter. Field populations are just a bit lower than what  would be normal for corn. Whereas thirty-two thousand plants to the acre might  be an acceptable population for a crop of corn, twenty-five thousand would be  better for sunflowers. This means spacing plants eight to ten inches apart  instead of the six inches that’s standard for a corn crop. John Deere plateless  planters with finger-pickup seed dispensation are perfectly suited to planting  sunflowers without any modification. The only adjustment necessary is to reduce  the depth of planting to one and a half inches and to back off the amount of  seed planted.

If sunflowers are planted too thick, they won’t thrive. Heads will be small  and stalks weak. Traditional plate planters need a bit more modification to  plant sunflowers. First, check the tag on the bag to find out what size of  sunflower seeds you have purchased. Number two is the largest sunflower seed and  number five, the smallest. Once you know the seed size, you can choose the  proper plate by looking at a chart on the back of the bag. Medium and large  seeds travel through seed plates much more uniformly than the smallest seeds.  Sunflower seed plates are quite thin and very specialized. For proper planting,  they require an additional filler ring under the main plate to take up extra  space. Make sure to position the filler ring under the seed plate and not above  it. I made this mistake once. I wondered why there was no seed coming out of the  planter, and when I stopped to inspect, I found that I had put everything  together in the wrong order. No matter what kind of planter you use, it is best  to take it for a dry run on a driveway or another hard-packed surface to make  sure that you are laying down the right amount of seed. Count the number of  seeds in seventeen and a half feet of row and multiply by a thousand to  determine the number of plants to the acre. Last but not least, make sure the  soil temperature is at least fifty degrees before beginning to plant  sunflowers.


Germination and Early-Season Weed Control


The period between planting and emergence is an ideal time to practice  aggressive weed control. Constantly monitor the germination process underground  by digging around for sprouted seeds. If you see a big flush of weeds coming,  don’t be afraid to pull a spike drag around the field on a sunny dry day to kill  weed rootlets in the white hair stage. A tine weeder like a Kovar or Einbock  will also do the trick, especially if the sunflower sprout is close to breaking  through the ground. Post-emergence tine weeding is a little trickier. Sunflowers  sprout in much the same manner as a dry bean or soybean. At emergence, you will  first notice two little cotyledons; these are closely followed by the first true  leaves. At the same time, the plant is beginning to sink a small taproot. It’s  important to wait for the appearance of the first two true leaves before  charging through the field with your tine weeder. If you do plan to tine weed  your sunflowers, you might want to plant a little heavier than normal because  some plants will be yanked out and destroyed during the process. In the past, I  have been hesitant to tine weed my sunflowers fearing that I was doing more harm  than good, but experience has taught me that it’s better to brutalize the little  plants than it is to let the in-row weeds get a foothold. The process is much  the same as it would be in corn or soybeans. Pass the weeder as many times as  you feel is necessary until the plants get six inches or taller. Timely and  effective early-season weed control makes all the difference later in the season  by reducing in-row weeds early in the game.


Growth Stages of the Sunflower


Sunflowers have a vegetative and a reproductive stage just like any field  crop. The vegetative stage begins right at emergence and continues for six to  eight weeks when the terminal bud first appears at the top of the stem.  Sunflowers look rather inconsequential right after emergence: Two tiny leaves  make their appearance right there at soil level, and from afar it’s difficult to  tell the difference between a field of soybeans and one of sunflowers at this  very early stage of vegetative growth. Once the roots get a foothold and the  leaves begin to widen and elongate, however, it’s much easier to identify the  crop as a field of sunflowers. Plants gain stature rapidly through the month of  June and into early July, and you might get through your sunflowers with a  row-crop cultivator a couple of times before they get too tall for the process.  By this time, the leaves have formed a protective canopy over the row that  shades out the weeds below. If you can do a reasonably good job of keeping the  weeds at bay up to now, there won’t be much competition to worry about after  this point. Sunflowers are uniquely characteristic in the coloring and texture  of their foliage during this vegetative period. The leaves are a bit furry to  the touch and light “lima bean” green in color. Most hybrid sunflowers don’t  grow much taller than six or seven feet. Longer-season varieties can have as  many as twelve points of leaf attachment and will have a vegetative period that  might be one to two weeks longer in duration than a shorter-season variety.  Sunflowers are simply amazing in their ability to transform themselves from two  tiny leaves hugging the earth to a veritable jungle of large green leaves on  sturdy stalks in two short months.

Sometime in early to mid-July, the terminal bud will appear at the top of the  stem instead of the next leaf cluster. The reproductive phase has now begun. The  terminal bud elongates an inch or so above the nearest leaf and gives us the  first hints that it is on its way to becoming a large beautiful flower. After  the passage of a few more days, the inflorescence begins to open; the first ray  flowers around the outer edge will now be visible. Flowering now begins in  earnest in the disc or center of the head. Meanwhile, the sunflower head is  getting larger by the day. Now is when you find out how adequate your fertility  levels are for growing a crop of sunflowers. If you’re a little short on  nitrogen being released from the soil’s humus reserves, it will definitely be  reflected in the final size of the seed head. Smaller sunflower heads mean  lighter yields.

Sunflower heads are actually composed of two different types of flowers. The  yellow petals around the outer circumference are called the ray flowers, and the  face of the head is made up of many individual disc flowers that each become a  future seed. These tiny disc flowers are self-compatible for pollination and do  not need the help of pollinating insects. There is a common myth that sunflowers  are heliotropic — which means that the flowering heads of the plants will follow  the sun throughout the day as it makes its way from the eastern horizon to the  west. This may be true when the plants are quite young and still in the  vegetative stage of growth, but it has been my personal experience that  sunflower heads usually point to the east. I have had several sunflower fields  that were situated on the east side of a north–south road. People passing by  were quite disappointed because the sunflowers were all pointed in the direction  opposite the highway. The peak period of brilliant sunflower inflorescence is  all too short, so be sure to enjoy the sight of your sunflower field when it  happens because the plants need to continue ripening to make seed. Get the  camera or paintbrushes and easel out when the field is at its most beautiful  state, as colors will begin to fade and petals drop off in a week to ten  days.




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