sunflower, any plant of the genus Helianthus of the family Asteraceae ( aster family), annual or perennial herbs native to the New World and common throughout the United States. In cultivation, the flower heads, commonly having yellow rays, sometimes reach 1 ft (30 cm) in diameter. The common sunflower ( H. annuus ) is an annual, native from Minnesota to Texas and California and perhaps also in Central and South America. Native Americans cultivated the plant and found many uses for it: the nutritious seeds were eaten raw, made into a meal, or used as a source of hair oil; a yellow dye was obtained from the flower heads, and a fiber from the stalks; the roots of certain other species were eaten. Today the common sunflower is widely cultivated; Ukraine, Russia, China, Romania, and Argentina are the largest producers. The seeds are almost universally used as a poultry food and principally as the source of an oil utilized for such purposes as cooking and soapmaking; the oil cake is fed to stock. The common sunflower is the state flower of Kansas, and a sunflower is regarded as the floral emblem of Peru, where it was revered by the ancient sun worshipers. Several other species are in cultivation—some are garden flowers; the Jerusalem artichoke is a food plant. Other plants are sometimes called sunflower. Sunflowers are classified in the division Magnoliophyta , class Magnoliopsida, order Asterales, family Asteraceae.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Plants