Why Scientists Are Gathering Seeds From Roadside Sunflowers

Climate changes threatens commercial sunflower production, where plants are grown for their oil

wild sunflower
Chad Miller/Flickr.com - CC-BY-2.0

A field of sunflowers is a happy thing to behold, but the bright blooms aren't just for show. Sunflowers are actually a valuable global crop, grown for the oil their seeds produce. But like many crops, experts worry about how climate change will affect their growth. So just as scientists hope that genes from wild rice might save rice crops, experts are searching the hills and roadsides of North America for wild sunflowers.

For Modern Farmer, Nelson Harvey writes about a plant physiologist and a botanist who collect roadside sunflower blooms using garden gloves and paper lunch bags. The pair hopes that by returning to the genetically diverse stock of flowers in the wild, they’ll discover the genes that could help commercial varieties survive droughts, floods and abrupt temperature swings. 

Harvey writes:

After tromping around the Utah dunes for 20 minutes, Marek and Seiler return to the car with paper bags bulging and label each with a marker, scribbling down the date and species. Seiler breaks a yard-high plant into three pieces and presses them between cardboard for the USDA’s wild sunflower collection in North Dakota. The seed heads will go to Marek’s Iowa lab, where they’ll be dried and then tested for viability. Some will be germinated and the seeds from those tested before being sent off to the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation, in Fort Collins, Colorado, as well as a global seed bank in Norway.

Once collected and cataloged, the seeds become genetic stock for plant breeders looking to develop robust, disease resistant varieties of sunflowers.