Unless otherwise noted, information contained in each edition of the Kansas School Naturalist reflects the knowledge of the subject as of the original date of publication.

KSN - Vol 28, No 1 - Kansas Sunflowers

Volume 28, Number 1 - October 1981

Kansas Sunflowers

by H.A. Stephens

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Published by Emporia State University

Prepared and issued by The Division of Biology

Editor: Robert F. Clarke

Editorial Committee: Gilbert A. Leisman, Tom Eddy, Robert J. Boles, John Ransom

Online format by: Terri Weast

The Kansas School Naturalist is sent upon request, free of charge, to Kansas teachers, school board members and administrators, librarians, conservationists, youth leaders, and other adults interested in nature education. Back numbers are sent free as long as supply lasts, except Vol.5, No.3, Poisonous Snakes of Kansas. Copies of this issue may be obtained for 25 cents each postpaid. Send orders to The Kansas School Naturalist, Division of Biology, Emporia Kansas State College, Emporia, Kansas, 66801.

The Kansas School Naturalist is published in October, December, February, and April of each year by the Kansas State Teachers College, 1200 Commercial Street, Emporia, Kansas, 66801. Second-class postage paid at Emporia, Kansas.

"Statement required by the Act of August 12, 1970, Section 3685, Title 34, United States Code, showing Ownership, Management and Circulation." The Kansas School Naturalist is published in October, December, February, and April. Editorial Office and Publication Office at 1200 Commercial Street, Emporia, Kansas 66801. The Naturalist is edited and published by Emporia State University, Emporia, Kansas. Editor, Robert F. Clarke, Division of Biological Sciences


Steve Stephens, a native Kansan, retired from K.U. in 1976 and now resides at the Ross Natural History Reservation of E.S.U. Among his most recent publications are Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of Kansas, Woody Plants of the North Central States, and Poisonous Plants of the Central United States.

Kansas Sunflowers

by H.A. Stephens

The sunflower is an "old timer" in the history of the people of the Americas. It was used by the Aztecs as a food and as an object of art, for their temples were adorned with solid gold figures of the sunflower. Apparently it is not known for sure whether the plant was native only in the region occupied by the Aztecs and brought to our present country by wandering tribes, or if it was native to all of North America. However, it is known that the Indians of Central United States were cultivating the sunflower over a thousand years ago. In Missouri and Arkansas, archaeologists have found urns containing sunflower seeds quite like the striped seeds of the large garden sunflower of today. And while excavating old Indian dwellings here in Kansas, dating back to the year of 800, archaeologists have found charred seeds almost identical with the black, oil-rich sunflower seeds often found in commercial bird feed.

And yet, Cecil Howes, a staff writer for the Kansas City Star, wrote in 1948 that a missionary who came to Kansas in 1937 found no sunflowers here and that the early explorers and settlers made no mention of them in their journals and diaries. On the other hand, W. C. Stevens states In his book "Kansas Wild Flowers" that the early French missionaries found the Indians of North America were using sunflower seeds for food and for oil -- even for hair oil! He goes on to say that on July 17, 1805, the Lewis and Clark explorers entered in their journal that the sunflower was common and "The Indians of the Missouri" made
great use of of it, especially those who did not cultivate maize. To me, Stevens' statements are the more convincing because I have personally worked with sunflower seeds from diggings dated back a thousand years. The history of the sunflower would be a good project for some student interested in archaeology, history, or botany.

Today, both the striped and the black sunflower seeds are used in nearly all commercial feeds for wild birds. But seeds of the native sunflower are seldom used, probably because their small size makes it unprofitable. However, in nature, they furnish a lot of winter food for birds, such as the goldfinch, siskin, and the native sparrows. People also use the large sunflower seeds for food -- not as the Indians did, but as salted seeds purchased in small bags. In some areas of the United States, large fields are planted to sunflowers and most of these seeds are used for bird feed, salted seeds, or for the extraction of oil for cooking, soap, and other products. The leftover cake from oil extraction is used as feed for livestock and poultry. The stems and leaves of the plant may be shredded and made into silage. And we must not forget
the use of the sunflower for its beauty along roadways or in gardens.

The sunflower probably gets its name from the radiating rays around a common center, but contributing to the name is the story that the flowers face the sun, a story backed by observation and scientific knowledge. Most house plants when placed near a window will bend toward the light and people often give the explanation that they are "reaching" for the light, and perhaps they are. But it is known that in some plants the side of the stem which receives the most light will grow slower than the darker side. This growth may
well be associated with moisture, too. The bending toward the light stops when the stem reaches maturity and is no longer capable of growth, so the turning toward the sun has stopped by the time the seeds have matured.

As most people know, the sunflower is the state flower of Kansas, but the statute bringing this about does not say which sunflower. It merely states "that the helianthus or wild native sunflower is hereby made, designated and declared to be the state flower and floral emblem of the state of Kansas. " Since Helianthus annuus is the most abundant and widespread of the sunflowers and at the same time is one of the strongest and most adaptable to a habitat, it is assumed to be the species intended by the Legislators.

Even more controversial is history of why it was chosen, for it was not selected by the school children, as was the meadowlark, our state bird. According to an article published in the Kansas City Star on August 16, 1948, back in 1880 Noble Prentis, a well known writer and editor, wrote in the Atchison Champion that the sunflower ought to be made the emblem of our state. Nothing further was done about it. But m 1901, George P. Morehouse, a Senator from Council Grove, attended the big annual rodeo and picnic in Colorado Springs, where each nearby state had a special day. The Missourians came out wearing buttons "You'll have to show me." But the Kansans had made no such preparations, so Morehouse and his friends borrowed a wagon and team, went out on the prairies east of Colorado Springs and brought back a wagon load of sunflowers. Each Kansan registering at the event was given one of the flowers to wear at the meeting. This started the ball rolling, and in 1903 the Legislature voted to make the sunflower our state emblem.

With all this history, we had better find out what a sunflower really is, and this will require a few technical terms. As most people know, plants and animals are divided into families; that is, those that are alike in structure are listed together as a family. These families are divided again -- or even again and again -- and eventually the genus group is isolated and each closely associated member of it is given a species name. So the sunflower belongs to the Asteraceae (Compositae) family and to the genus Helianthus. It is to this genus that the name sunflower really belongs. We have eleven species of Helianthus in Kansas. Two of them will not be discussed. Helianthus strumosus L., found in only four counties in eastern Kansas; and Helianthus ciliaris DC., a weedy plant from the Southwest and rare in western Kansas. Of course the word weed has many meanings, but to me it is an aggressive plant which grows to the detriment or exclusion of plants purposely grown by man. In some cases, the sunflower would clearly fit this definition.

The best way to define a genus, in this case Helianthus, is to give a few of its characteristics, and to understand some of them you may have to refer to the glossary or the drawing.

1. Flowers in heads with two types of flowers, 50-300 disk flowers in the center and 15-30 ray flowers around the outside.

2. The disk flowers are perfect and fertile, the rays not fertile.

3. A chaff is at the base of each seed (achene).

4. Achenes more or less 4-angled, not awned.

5. Involucral bracts separate, not united.

6. Receptacle flat or only slightly rounded.

7. Leaf petioles not continued as a wing or ridge down along the stem.

Diagrammatic Section Through a Sunflower Head;
A. Ray Flower B. Disk Flower C. Involucral Bract D. Recptacle

see caption above



2. Stem course; leaves long, broadly ovate; disk brown, no white center; involucral ovate, narrowed to a long tip . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . H. annuus

2/. Stem slender; leaves small, narrowly ovate, disk brown with white center; involucral bracts lanceolate, tapering to a tip . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . H. petiolaris


3. Disk flowers red-brown or purple-brown

4. Leaves narrowly linear . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . H. salidfolius

4/. Leaves narrowly ovate, tapered to the petiole and to the tip . . . . . . . . . H. rigidus

3/. Disk flowers yellow

5. Leaves sessile or nearly so

6. Leaves broadly ovate, heart-shaped base, pale green, white-hairy. . . . . . . . . H. mollis

6/. Leaves narrowly ovate, rounded or suddenly tapered, scabrous . . . . . . . . . H. hirsutus

5/. Leaves petioled

7. Leaves ovate, the base decurrent . . . . . . . . . H. tuberosus

7/. Leaves lanceolate

8. Leaves trough-shaped, recurved, without teeth; flowers on short stalks on central
stem . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . H. maximiliani

8/. Leaves nearly flat, drooping, sharply toothed; flowers on long branches near top of plant . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . H. grosseserratus


Helianthus annus L.

Found on roadsides, waste places, and broken areas in prairies; statewide. Plant coarse, 1-3 m high, usually with a central stem and many branches, rough to the touch. Leaves mostly alternate; petiole 5-10 cm long; blade ovate, often heart-shaped, 10-30 cm long, 7-20 cm wide, rough hairy, margin toothed. Flowers on the ends of branches through the plant; disk brown, 3-5 cm across, rays yellow, 3-5 cm long; involucral bracts broadly oval but abruptly pointed, seeds narrowly ovate in outline, slightly 4-angled, 4-5 mm long, 2.25 mm wide, 1-1.2 mm thick, hairy, striate, dark brown and often mottled with darker brown.

The two varieties commonly grown commercially or in home gardens are similar to the above, but much larger, coarser, and with only one flower on each
plant. The larger one of these two has heads 10-14 cm across and the seeds striped black and white, 12-15 mm long, 5-9 mm wide. The smaller one has heads 6-10 cm across and the seeds are black, 6-11 mm long, 3-6 mm wide. There is also a "double" form in which the center is filled with ray flowers. This form may occur in the wild plants, too.

Helianthus annuus

Helianthus annuus

Helianthus annuus

Helianthus petiolaris Nutt.

Found in sandy soil throughout the state, but rare in the eastern one-third. Plant slender, 0.5-1.5 m high, often bush-like because the lower branches may spread and ascend, the central stem being less pronounced; the stems covered with appressed hairs.
Leaves mostly alternate; the petioles slender, 5-10 cm long; blade narrowly ovate to deltoid, seldom heart-shaped at the base, 5-10 cm long, 3-5 cm wide, hairy,
margin undulate. Flowers on branch ends, disk 1.5-2.5 cm across, brown with a whitish center due to the white chaff at the base of the disk flowers; rays yellow, 2-2.5 cm long; involucral bracts lanceolate, tapering to a tip. Seeds lanceolate in outline, pale brown with darker mottling, 4-5 mm long, 1.2-2 mm wide, 0.8-1 mm thick, 4-angled, hairy.

Helianthus petiolaris

Helianthus mollis Lam.

Found on dry sandy soil or sandstone hillsides in the eastern one-third of Kansas. Plant stiffly erect from a perennial rhizome; stem seldom branched , 40-70 cm high, leaves and stem white-hairy. Leaves opposite, sessile or nearly so; blade mostly broadly ovate with heart-shaped base, 6-10 cm long, 3-6 cm wide, ascending, margin with low teeth. Flowers usually terminal and solitary but may be few at the top on short branches or peduncles; disk yellow, 2-3 cm across; rays yellow, 1.5-2.5 cm long; involcral bracts lanceolate, the tapered tip often spreading, densely white-hairy. Seeds lanceolate in outline, 3.5-4 mm long, 1.2-1.7 mm wide, 0.5-0.7 mm thick, brown to nearly black, slightly 4-angled, few or no hairs.

Helianthus mollis

Helianthus mollis

Helianthus mollis

Helianthus hirsutus Raf.

Found in rocky soil along roadsides or open woods in the eastern one-third of the state. Plant erect from a perennial rhizome, 0.5-1 m high, stem simple or occasionally branched near the top, stem scabrous. Leaves opposite, ascending, sessile or nearly so; blade lanceolate, 6-10 cm long, 2 -5 cm wide, rough and hairy, margin toothed. Flowers solitary, terminal on the main stem or branches; disk yellow, 1-1.5 cm across; rays yellow, 1-1.5 cm long; involucral bracts lanceolate, often with long tip. Seeds lanceolate in outline, 3-4 mm long, 1.3-1.8 mm wide, about 0.6 mm thick, brown to nearly black, scabrous.

Helianthus hirsutus

Helianthus tuberosus L.

Found in moist roadside ditches, on stream banks and waste places in the eastern two-thirds of the state. The rhizomes often with edible tubers on their ends. Plant 1-2.5 m. high, scabrous, branching above the middle. Lower leaves opposite, upper ones alternate; petiole 3-8 cm long; blade broadly lanceolate to ovate, tapering at the base to a wing along the petiole, 10 -20 cm long, 4-10 cm wide, rough hairy, margin toothed. Flowers on short branches in the upper one-third of the plant; disk yellow, 1-1.5 cm across; rays yellow, 2.5-3 cm long; involucral bracts lanceolate, narrowed to a point and usually spreading outward. Seeds broadly lanceolate in outline, 5-6 mm long, 2-2.7 mm wide, 2-2.5 mm thick, 4-angled, dark brown, glabrous.

Helianthus tuberosus

Helianthus maximiliani

Found in prairies and on roadsides, sandy or limestone soil throughout the state. Plant 1-2.5 m tall; rhizome short and thick with one or more vertical stems from the same base. Leaves alternate; petiole 0.5-1 cm long, winged; blade lanceolate, trough-shaped and curved downward, scabrous, 5-18 cm long, 1.5-3 cm wide, margin not toothed. The upper half of the central stem has many short, axillary
branches with a flower on each, giving a columnar effect in the flowering section; disk flowers yellow, disk 2-3 cm across, rays yellow, 2-3 cm long; involucral bracts with a broad base suddenly narrowed to a long curved tip. Seeds lanceolate in outline, 3-5 mm long, 1.3-1.6 mm wide, about 1 mm thick, 4-angled, brown to nearly black or mottled, striate, glabrous.

Helianthus maximiliani Helianthus maximiliani Helianthus maximiliani

Helianthus grosseserratus

Found in ditches, on creek banks and waste places in moist soil in the eastern one-third of the state. Plant 2-4 m high, branching above; stem glabrous, glaucous; often in clusters or colonies from a long, spreading rhizome. Leaves alternate; petiole slender, 1-4 cm long, narrowly winged; blade lanceolate,
drooping, 10-20 cm long, 1-4 cm wide, margin sharply toothed.

Flowers on slender branches or peduncles in the upper part of the plant; disks yellow, 1-2 cm across; rays yellow, 2-3 cm long; involucral bracts lance-linear, long pointed and spreading. Seeds lanceolate in outline, 3-4.5 mm long, 1-1.2 mm wide, 0.75 -1 mm thick, dark brown, 4-angled, finely streaked or mottled, glabrous; occasionally seeds are pale brown, streaked and mottled with dark brown.

Helianthus grosseserratus

Helianthus salicifolius
A. Dietr.

Found in dry soil, rocky hills or prairies, especially in limestone soils in the eastern one-third of Kansas. Plant 1.5-2.5 m high from an elongated rhizome, usually in olonies or clusters; stem glabrous, branching on the upper half or just at the top. Leaves alternate, numerous and crowded, curled downward; petiole indefinite because the blade is narrowly linear, 10-20 cm long, 1-3 mm wide. Flowers on branch ends or long peduncles; disk brown or slightly purplish, 1-1.5 cm across; rays yellow, 1-3 cm long; involucral bracts broad at base abruptly narrowed to a subulate, spreading tip. Seeds broadly lanceolate in outline, 5-6 mm long, 2.75-3 mm wide, 1-1.5 mm thick, brown to nearly black, often mottled, striate, glabrous.

Helianthus salicifolius

Helianthus rigidus
(Cass.) Desf.

Found in dry prairies, especially rocky, clay soils in the eastern half of the state. Plant slender, 0.5-1.5 m high, erect from rhizomes. Stem often simple but may be branched near the top, scabrous, leafy below but only a few leaves in the upper part, so the plant appears leafy with a long, nearly naked stem holding the flower. Leaves mostly opposite; petiole winged, 0.5-2 cm long; blade lanceolate, 5-15 cm long, 1-4 cm wide, margin entire or with few low teeth, usually stiff hairy. Flowers single on the end of the central stem or on long, axillary peduncles; disk dark purple-brown, 1.5-2 cm across; rays yellow, 1.5-3 cm long; involucral bracts ovate, tightly appressed, usually with rounded tip. Seeds lanceolate in outline, 4.5-5.5 mm long, 1.5-2.3 mm wide, 1.2-1.5 mm thick, 4-angled, dark brown, often mottled, striate, hairy.

Helianthus rigidus

The following genera of plants are sometimes mistaken for Helianthus. Characteristics given show why they are not sunflowers.

Silphium, Rosin weed or Compass plant . . . . . . . . . . . rays are fertile.
Berlandiers, no common name . . . . . . . . . . . rays are fertile.
Heliopsis, False sunflower . . . . . . . . . . . rays fertile, receptacle conic.
Ratibida, Coneflower . . . . . . . . . . . receptacle conic or columnar.
Verbesina, Wingstem . . . . . . . . . . . achenes flat, winged; stems usually winged.
Thelesperma, Greenthread . . . . . . . . . . . involucral bracts united at base.
Coreopsis, Tickseed . . . . . . . . . . . involucral bracts united at base; achenes flat.
Rudbeckia, Black-eyed Susan . . . . . . . . . . . receptacle conical.


Achene. A dry, one-seeded fruit; the "seed" of the sunflower.

Alternate. The leaves placed singly at different heights on the stem.

Annual. Living only one year.

Appressed. Lying close and parallel to a plant part.

Awn. A bristle-like appendage, either short or long.

Axil. The angle between a leaf and stem. Not a structure.

Axillary. Located within the axil.

Blade. The broad, flat portion of a leaf.

Bract. A leaf-like structure directly below a flower or head of flowers.

Chaff. A small, thin, dry bract, usually around the seed.

Corolla. Each of the outer, yellow "petals" is really a corolla of three to five petals united into one; in the brown center, each individual part is a flower and with a lens the four or five points, which are the petals, of the corolla can be seen.

Decurrent. Extending downward, as a leaf blade along the petiole.

Deltoid. Triangular.

Disk. The central portion of the sunflower, usually brown.

Disk flower. The small tubular or funnel-shaped flowers in the disk.

Entire. Without teeth on the margin.

Fertile. Capable of reproduction, the male flower having the pollen and the female having the cell which becomes the seed.

Glabrous. Smooth, without hairs.

Glaucous. Covered with a "bloom", a white, waxy substance which rubs off.

Head. A dense cluster of sessile flowers.

Involucral bract. One of the bracts below a flower or flower head.

Involucre. The set of bracts beneath a flower or flower head.

Lance-linear. Between lance-shaped and narrow with parallel sides.

Lanceolate. Shaped like a lance head.

Linear. Narrow with parallel sides, like a narrow ribbon.

Opposite. The leaves placed slightly on opposite sides of a stem and at the same height.

Ovate. Egg-shaped.

Pedicel. The stem of a single flower.

Peduncle. The stem bearing a group of flowers.

Perennial. Living three or more years.

Perfect. A flower containing both stamens and pistils.

Petiole. The stalk of a leaf.

Ray. The flat, yellow strap-shaped "petal" of the sunflower.

Receptacle. In composite flowers, the expanded end of a stem on which the many flowers are located.

Rhizome. An underground stem from which the above-ground stems arise.

Scabrous. Rough to the touch due to short, stiff hairs.

Sessile. Without a stalk, fastened directly to another part of the plant.

Subulate. Awl-shaped.

Undulate. Wavy in an up and down direction.


Bare, Janet E, 1979. Wildflowers and Weeds of Kansas, The Regents Press of Kansas, Lawrence.

Craighead, John J., Frank C. Craighead, Jr. and Ray J. Davis. 1963. A Field Guide to Rocky Mountain Flowers. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. (Peterson Field Guide Series)

Denison, Edgar. 1973, second edition. Missouri Wildflowers. Missouri Department of Conservation, Jefferson City.

Lommasson, Robert C. 1973. Nebraska Wildflowers. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

Owensby, Clenton E. 1980. Kansas Prairie Wildflowers, Iowa State University Press, Ames.

Stevens, W.C. 1948. Kansas Wild Flowers. University of Kansas Press (now The Regents Press of Kansas), Lawrence. Out of Print.

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