The ‘Native’ Black Peredovik Sunflower

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Brand new sunflowers

As April approaches, the earth is getting greener. The fresh newness of spring brings hope to lovers of nature and insane ideas to gardeners.

FYI, Oklahoma State University is hosting the 2021 Shackelford Webinar Series until December. One Thursday each month, 1pm-3pm, a program of interest is presented on-line. Some topics: Green Roofs, Botanic Gardens, Pollinators, Fertilizers. Open to all.

In March, Marilyn Stewart (Wild Things Nursery) unveiled “Native Plants: Connecting with Natives.” Restore the environment by propagating native plants through seeds or plants. As Lady Bird Johnson said: “Preserve wildflowers and native plants that define the regions of our land.”

Native plants (Oklahoma has 2,700 plant species) are vital for wildlife. The Osage-orange, Maclura pomifera, was spread by giant sloths 13,000 years ago. Big critters ranging between 400 pounds to 3 tons. Big mouths able to eat the grapefruit-sized bitter fruits which ripened in autumn. Native to the Red River area, the Osage-orange has been extensively planted, but the population is currently declining. A huge specimen is growing at the Chickasaw National Recreation near Sulphur. Near my house Osage-orange trees are being torn out of a field. Why? The wood not only burns hotter than any other hardwood. Osage-orange wood is resistant to diseases and rot, plus it is beautiful. The branches made resilient bows and arrows. Some ancient Osage-orange weapons have been found in Montana.

Sassafras, in the laurel family, has mitten shaped leaves from which come gumbo file spice, the only native spice in the US. Sassafras is host to spicebush swallowtail. The larva, a bright green caterpillar, has a large fake eyespot on one end.

Lead plant, Amorpha canescens, has a short bloom time but what amazing flowers. It was called prairie shoestring because when the deep roots (down to 24 feet) were surface plowed, they’d snap apart. Host plant for the silver-spotted skipper.

A plant Marilyn has yet to propagate is the highly scented pincushion daisy, Gaillardia suavis. The perennial is only found in KS, OK, TX into MX. Quite similar to its cousin, the more widespread Indian Blanket Gaillardia pulchella, the daisy lacks the showy outer flower petals.

The genus Helianthus has about 70 species, many recognized as Sunflowers. They sprout easily from seeds, even better in sunny locations. Certain species bloom in autumn and nourish the migrating birds and butterflies as they go south.

This is spring. Why mention sunflowers? The birdfeeder seed remnants—black oil sunflower, millet, milo (sorghum seed) and wheat—had accumulated on the ground to such a depth it was time for action. Those birds had plowed through a lot of seed (200 pounds) during the bitter cold spell. Where to put wheelbarrows full of seed debris? Idea. Cover the sunken area over the septic tank. The black mulch layer added an air of respectability, until green plants appeared. Not all seeds had been eaten. Sunflowers were popping up everywhere.

Two types of sunflowers are commercially grown: oil seed and confection. The oil seeds, usually black, have more protein and oil with little flavor, high in polyunsaturated fat and good for birds. The seeds of confection sunflowers, multi-colored or gray with little white stripes, are used in salads and snacks.

Black Oil sunflowers are often the Russian Black Peredovik Sunflowers. Young plants savored by deer which produce strong taproots with many laterals, and broad leaves on stems which may reach five feet. Small flower heads are full of black oil seeds with thin hulls favored by doves and other wild birds. Then again, if deer get to the mulched area first, I may not have to worry about sunflowers at all.

Hold on. Sunflowers are native. First eaten by hunter gathers, sunflowers were cultivated in the southwestern parts of the United States and Mexico 5,000 years ago. In 1500, the sunflower traveled to Europe where it gained great fame. In 1700 Peter the Great of Russia, who often traveled to Holland, liked sunflowers so much he took some back home. Sunflower seed oil became super popular during Lent because it was not on the prohibited list of oils. By 1830 Russia had gone into sunflowers big time. Extensive research and selective breeding programs developed a range of cultivars.

Russian immigrants brought the seeds to the US and Canada in the late 1800’s. “Mammoth Russian” sunflowers caught the attention of our growers who soon jumped onto the sunflower seed band wagon. Today, the Ukraine and Russia are still top producing countries. The US is 10th. Most sunflowers are grown in North and South Dakota.

The native sunflowers have traveled many miles and come full circle. And there they grow, over the septic tank.