Weird Sunflowers, Wonderful New Traits
Wild sunflowers grow in the strangest places—just ask Tom Gulya and Gerald Seiler. They're Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists who collect the plants’ seeds during trips across the United States. Their collections help keep farm-grown sunflowers healthy.
For example, while traveling in Colorado in 2005, they noticed wild sunflowers growing beside a McDonald’s restaurant parking lot. On another trip, in southern California, they found a different species—a vine-like sunflower clinging to the backs of shifting sand dunes.
Gulya and Seiler collect wild sunflowers once
or twice a year. They usually end up driving
2,500 to 3,000 miles per trip—much of that on
country or back roads.
They prefer to travel in
August and September.
That’s when the plants’
seeds are fully
developed and still
attached, rather than
having fallen to the
The scientists map the location of each
new spot where they collect wild sunflowers, and describe the growing conditions.
That way, future collectors will know
where to look. But, “you can’t assume
the plant will be in the same location
in 10 years,” Gulya says.
For example, whorled sunflowers, which grow up to 15 feet high, were first described in Chester County, Tennessee, in 1898. Then the species disappeared until 1994, when scientists found it in Floyd County, Georgia.
So why bother collecting wild sunflowers at all,
especially if they may or may not be around for long?
Wild sunflowers are like hidden treasure chests. Instead of gold, though, they carry new traits that can improve commercially grown sunflowers. Sometimes, commercial varieties fall short in fighting off new diseases or insect pests, like the
red sunflower seed weevil.
But somewhere, there’s a wild
relative that gets attacked all the
time and still survives. Scientists can breed that
wild sunflower's defenses
into commercial sunflowers so they, too, will survive.
Traits from wild sunflowers can also improve a commercial variety’s survival in poor growing conditions. So, “if we’re looking for drought tolerance, it would make sense to
look for sunflower
species growing in
the desert,” says Gulya.
Most crops grown in
including wheat and
introduced from other
countries. But sunflowers are U.S. natives.
Collecting wild sunflowers doesn't just
help improve commercial
varieties; it also helps
preserve wild species whose
habitats are threatened by
human activity or even by
natural disasters, like forest
Not surprisingly, “there are
enough areas here off the
beaten path to find wild
sunflower germplasm,” says
Gulya. Germplasm includes
seeds, cuttings, and buds.
ARS scientists have been collecting wild sunflowers since around 1976. Today, over 2,100 seed specimens are in storage for safekeeping and future use.
The dollar value of passing traits from wild specimens
into commercial sunflowers is as much as $384 million a year.
So you could almost say wild sunflowers are worth their
weight in gold.
—Jan Suszkiw, Agricultural Research Service, Information Staff
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