Curator’s Corner: Annual Sunflowers

by Amanda Mather, Curator of Collections

Even long after agriculture had taken a firm grip amongst Pueblo people here in northern New Mexico, wild plant resources continued to be eaten, used medicinally, and, of course, used to make all manner of stuff. We can still see New Mexicans enjoying wild plant foods — I saw quelites (wild greens) on a menu in Pecos last week! So this month I wanted to talk about a wild food that is near and dear to my heart, especially this time of year.

The Helianthus annuus, or Annual Sunflower, loves to grow in disturbed soil, so you often see it in newly dug up land or on the side of the road. If you drive around New Mexico in August or September you are bound to see lots and lots of these happy, peppy flowers! It has very little need for water, making it an ideal candidate for the high desert. It seems that sunflowers were one of the few wild plants to be domesticated north of Mexico.

It is likely that as people spread around the region, sunflowers did as well, occupying the disturbed soil humans left behind. They spread through the Rio Grande Valley and eventually up to the plains by way of trade, making these blooms ubiquitous in much of the west.

The Helianthus annuus, are a valuable and loved source of food. The seeds can be eaten in their natural state, baked, or ground into flower to add to other foods. High in both calories and nutrients, sunflowers turned out to be a very important source of nutrition for folks. Not to mention that they also taste great — have you tried dill flavored sunflower seeds? They are definitely next level!

In Pueblo cultures sunflowers were used as decoration for dances and feast days as well as for medicinal and practical uses. In San Ildefonso, the flowers are woven into women’s clothing for corn dances. Ohkay Owingeh men weave the flowers into head dresses that they wear for harvest dances.

Medicinally, the sap from the sunflower stalk was used to clean small wounds, and in Zuni the sap was used to treat rattlesnake bites. Puebloans used the strong light stalks as bird snares and for arrow shafts; and hollowed out the centers to make flutes.<

Like all plants here in the desert, the Annual Sunflower has lots of uses. Of course, the sunflower also happens to have another advantage — it’s so unbelievably pretty!