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  • Ian Thompson

Restoring Little Suns in Our Prairie Pastures

Updated: Dec 5, 2021

For several years now, we’ve been actively working to restore the native landscapes of Nan Awaya Farm. One of the things the experience is teaching us is the importance of doing what you can to make a difference, even if the results of that effort may not appear for a long time. Planting seeds from native prairie plants is a good example. As the saying goes, prairie plants creep in the year they are planted, crawl in the second year, and explode in the third year. In other words, because native perennials develop their deep roots first, it usually takes 3 years after planting before you see big, impressive plants on the ground. We’ve been watching this play out on the farm. This season, native grasses that we planted as far back as four years ago are popping up. It’s taken all this time for those efforts to show results. Some other plantings still haven’t shown anything, and maybe they never, will but we’ve come to understand that making the attempt was worth the effort. In this post, we’d like to share our experience of trying to bring native sunflowers back into our upland pastures.

About 70 different species of wild sunflower are native to the United States. Most live in grasslands and dry environments. Sunflowers are exceptionally important to the web of life in the prairie. Their long taproots may extend as much as 15 feet into the ground. These roots pull up soil nutrients from deep in the earth and bring them closer to the surface where soil organisms and other plants can use them. Sunflowers are loved by many pollinators. The plants also secrete nectar from their stalks. The nectar is a food source for ants, enticing them to hang out on sunflowers and provide some protection from insects that could damage the plant. Some insects do get past the ant defenders to feed on the sunflowers' leaves and stalks, but rarely enough to kill the plant. Later in the season, sunflower seeds provide an essential food source for birds and a variety of mammals. In the fall, species of bees and other insects burrow into the dead sunflower stalks to make their homes for winter in the insulated pith.

Sunflowers can be really tough. Some species are perennial, like Maximillian Sunflower, coming up year after year from the same root. Some species spread through underground rhizomes to form big patches, even if animals eat all of their seeds. Some species exude chemicals from their roots that inhibit the growth of other plants nearby. Other species, like Common Sunflower are annuals (photo right). They have a huge burst of growth in their first year, seed prolifically, and die. The seeds may lay dormant in the soil for years, until fire or drought sets back the surrounding plants and gives them a chance to blossom, literally. Most sunflowers are drought tolerant. In years of extreme drought when even native prairie grasses dry up, the annual sunflowers cover the land in yellow blossoms, providing cover and food to sustain life for a wide variety of animals.

The old Choctaw word for sunflowers was Hvshushi, meaning “little suns”. Today, they are simply referred to as Hvshi “suns". Choctaw people understood the sun to be God’s eye watching their earth and helping people to prosper. Like others, they noticed that young sunflowers are sometimes able to turn during the course of the day to follow the sun. There is important symbolism in that.

Sunflower seeds are high in polyunsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat, magnesium, vitamin B6 dietary fiber, and iron. They are an important ingredient in the traditional foodways of many Tribes. On this planet, there are ten places where humans are known to have developed agriculture. One of these is in the present-day Midwestern states of Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Here, people domesticated several native plants over time, including the sunflower in 2,800 BC. Domesticated sunflower became part of a suite of Indigenous crop plants that would power Native American communities in the region for millennia before corn agriculture. These communities exported the domesticated sunflower to Mexico and ultimately the rest of the world. Today, world farmers annually produce around 45 million tons of sunflower seed - an enduring gift to the globe from the Native American people of the Midwest.

A Choctaw dish called Hvshi Bahpo, “sunflower porridge” was made by shelling the seeds, mixing them with parched corn, grinding them together in a mortar and pestle until they become powder, and then boiling the powder in water. This dish is extremely tasty and filling. Native American communities used sunflowers for a wide variety of things beyond food ingredients. The Hopi developed sunflower varieties that produce dye through their seeds. When the Hidatsa cooked soup in clay pottery, they sometimes floated fresh sunflower leaves in the the broth at the neck of the pot to hold in the heat. Ancient people living in the Ozarks used sunflower stalks in the construction of baby carriers. Choctaw farmers grew an ancient variety of domesticated sunflower up until around 1900. Unfortunately, in years of searching, I’ve been unable to find any seeds for this variety, or even a detailed description of it.

As noted in previous posts, when we purchased Nan Awaya Farm, it had been overgrazed for years. Since changing the way the land is managed, we’ve seen Swamp Sunflowers thrive in the wetter, lowland areas. They are a favorite stop for monarchs on their fall migration. Unfortunately, the sunflowers that once grew in the uplands of the farm have not reappeared - they were totally destroyed. It's up to us to bring them back. Reintroducing such a tough and resilient plant has turned out to be more of a challenge than I initially thought it would be.

More that 200 native grassland plant species survived past overgrazing on Nan Awaya Farm. We can’t reintroduce sunflowers to our pastures by standard methods like plowing, because it would destroy what is already here. We had to find a non-destructive and cost-effective means for doing it. Our first attempt was seed bombs, small balls made of compost, clay, and seeds that are pressed into the soil where they will dissolve in the spring rains. In 2018 and 2019, we planted 2,000 seed bombs in our pastures, many of them containing seeds from both annual (Common) and perennial (Bush and Maximillian) sunflower species. To date, only 5 annual sunflower plants have come up from those experiments, and they didn’t reseed themselves the next year.

Last, year we began planting by using a garden hoe to churn up 1-ft diameter areas of soil out in our pastures. Common and Maximillian Sunflower were in a seed mix we put together and used in hundreds of these plantings last winter. This spring, some of these plantings came up in dozens of young sunflowers. We found that for plantings set in dry, sandy areas, lots of these young plants succumbed to the summer heat, but in nearly every planting, at least one or two Common Sunflowers made it to maturity and produced their own seed. The results were different for plantings set into existing grass growth. There, numerous Common Sunflowers generally made it to maturity, apparently because the surrounding plant growth provided enough soil moisture for the young plants to get established. Besides planting sunflowers in mixes, we also did some plantings of Showy Sunflower and Downy Sunflower (both aggressive perennials) all by themselves.

As of this summer, we’d only had two perennial sunflowers from our plantings come up and bloom. Then, both of them just disappeared from the face of the earth at a time when our buffalo and horses were nowhere near them. The culprit may have been gophers. Frustrating. More concerning than gophers is the possibility that past abuse of this land could have damaged the web of life in our soils to the point that it is now difficult for it support these species of sunflower. Time will tell, although since so many other native plant species grow here, many them much less tough than sunflowers, I’m reasonably hopeful that the problem lies elsewhere.

A few years ago, the patch of sunflowers shown here grew on our lowlands. They were massive, about 8-ft tall and covered in dozens of blooms. I didn't know much about plant identification at the time, and didn't take pictures of the right parts of this plant to ID it later. In retrospect, I think this was probably Maximillian sunflower. This fall, we bought a 1/4lb bag of Maximillian sunflower seed from the Native American Seed Company. This week, I used that seed to plant 230 patches of Maximillians in or pastures. If the experiment is successful, we’ll have a native species back in our pastures that will help support life for so many others. We’ll have an additional food source for our grazing animals, and a little more resiliency against drought and climate change. In the fall, our pastures will become punctuated with electric color. The Little Suns will have returned to this landscape.

If this week’s experiment is a bust, the direct cost was a whopping $15 for the seed, and two mornings worth of time spent out on a beautiful fall landscape. The bigger issue, if this experiment fails, of course, would be that our pastures would continue to be without an important life support. We've helped to minimize that risk by planting other species like Rosinweed, Compass Plant, and Tall Thistle that can cover some of the same roles as the perennial sunflowers. Even though we won’t know the full outcome of this planting for another 2-4 years, I have no doubt that the effort trying to reintroduce the Maximillians was worth it.

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Nov 21, 2021

As always, you not only give us a bouquet of new information, this time with a mix of botanical , ecological, and historic colors, but also bring the reader to the farm itself where we share the adventures and experiments and indeed the hopes with you. Thank you for these moments.

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