Sunflowers bred to handle more extreme weather

There’s something about sunflowers — in a field or a bouquet — that just makes you smile.

Very few plants are as heat-tolerant, resistant to pests and just plain pretty. The National Garden Bureau even designated 2021 as the “Year of the Sunflower”. But sunflowers aren’t only grown for their looks and for florists to arrange — they’re also grown for their edible seeds and oil. Sunflowers are heliotropic, which means they turn their heads to follow the sun across the sky from east to west throughout the day.

Sunflowers are hardy and able to withstand the heat from the sun, but as the climate changes, farmers are experiencing different and more extreme weather than what they’re used to.

Drought and temperatures are increasing in the South Central Plains, and places in the North Plains and Midwest are seeing more rain, which increases the risk of wet weather diseases to crops.

Researchers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture are experimenting with breeding new varieties of sunflowers that better tolerate these more extreme weather patterns. One way researchers are doing this is cross-breeding domestic sunflowers with wild species of sunflowers that grow and thrive in extreme environments like deserts and wetlands. Wild sunflowers provide a pool of genetic resources for biotic and abiotic resistance in domesticated sunflowers.

The experimental hybrids can then be grown in farmers’ fields.

The research is seeing encouraging results: northern farmers who have been growing some of these new, more resilient varieties have seen a decrease in wet-weather diseases in their crop.

Continued research and experiments will help make sure that even as weather patterns change, sunflowers will keep shining and thriving.

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