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A history of sunflowers

Making It Grow Minute Extra logo

The annual sunflower, Helianthus annuus, is native to North America and was widely used by early indigenous people as a food, a source for dyes, and numerous medicinal purposes. Over 3,000 years, by their selectively saving the largest seeds to plant, the size of the seeds increased one thousand percent. They ate the plain seeds but also pulverized parched seeds and added them to vegetable stews, made breads with them, and created medicines from all parts of the plant. Women tended individual garden plots, which they watered and weeded, often planting taller sunflowers on the edges, and practiced leaving plots fallow for nutrient renewal. They dried the mature sunflower heads in the sun, then beat them with sticks to separate the seeds. Seeds were saved in woven baskets, often dyed with colors from the sunflowers themselves.

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Amanda McNulty is a Clemson University Extension Horticulture agent and the host of South Carolina ETV’s Making It Grow! gardening program. She studied horticulture at Clemson University as a non-traditional student. “I’m so fortunate that my early attempts at getting a degree got side tracked as I’m a lot better at getting dirty in the garden than practicing diplomacy!” McNulty also studied at South Carolina State University and earned a graduate degree in teaching there.