Public information coordinator,
Johnson County Extension
To help commemorate Kansas’ 150th anniversary of statehood, the Johnson County Fair Board selected as its theme for the 2011 County Fair “Kick Up Your Heels – Celebrate Kansas’ 150th Birthday”. As part of the year-long, county-wide sesquicentennial celebration, Johnson County K-State Research and Extension is helping to sponsor a sunflower growing contest. Judging for the tallest plant and largest seed head will take place at the Overland Park Fall Festival, Sept. 24 in downtown Overland Park.
Having a sunflower contest seems a natural for K-State Extension and a company with the word “sun” in its title. But have you ever wondered why this lowly, some-what weedy, roadside flower is so closely tied to our state? Why have sunflowers become synonymous with Kansas?
“WHEREAS, Kansas has a native wild flower common throughout her borders, hardy and conspicuous, of definite, unvarying and striking shape…ideally adapted for artistic reproduction… WHEREAS, This … is a flower which has given Kansas the world-wide name, ‘the sunflower state’: Be it enacted by the Legislature of the State of Kansas: That the helianthus or wild native sunflower is hereby made, designated and declared to be the state flower and floral emblem of the state of Kansas.”
It was in 1903 that the Kansas Legislature made it official and declared Helianthus annuus, the common sunflower, the official state flower and floral emblem for the state. But how did this cheery yet “weedy-like” flower become such a beloved symbol for the 34th state?
The sunflower is an annual plant from the Asteraceae family. This native American plant dates back to ancient times. Carbon dating of seeds found in North American clay date back nearly 3,000 years. Native Americans domesticated the plant’s production to create a reliable food source.
Sunflowers seeds back then were only about 3/16” in length. By carefully selecting only the largest seeds, early American natives were able to successfully produce the cultivated sunflower.
They ate the seeds, ground the small kernels into flour, extracted oil from seeds for their hair, and used the seeds, flower petals and pollen to make dyes for face paint, cloths and baskets.
It is said that Lewis and Clark mention the use of sunflowers by the plains Indians in their journals. Sunflowers are said to have lined the Sante Fe Trail. The flower stalks were used as fuel and the seeds as poultry feed by pioneers traveling west. More and more of these hardy travelers settled in Kansas, and on Jan. 29, 1861 Kansas entered the Union.
While Senator George P. Morehouse may have written the legislative act that was approved by Governor Willis Joshua Bailey on March 12, 1903, declaring the sunflower the state flower, it was actually Noble L. Prentis, a prominent Kansas writer and editor who first proposed the idea. Kansas had been known as “the Sunflower State” many years before the 1903 law was adopted. In Sept. 2, 1880, Prentis wrote: “The capitol square is surrounded by a dense growth, rods in width, of rampant sunflowers. They grow as big, rank and yellow as if they were 40 miles from a house. The sunflower ought to be made the emblem of our state. Nothing checks it or kills it. It is always ‘happy as a big sunflower.’ Grasshoppers have never held the edge on it; and in times of drought when everything else wilts…the sunflower continues business at the old stand. It probably has some private arrangement with nature for securing ‘aid.’”
Morehouse, after attending a convention where attendees had donned sunflowers so that they could recognize fellow Kansans, decided to propose the law. Gov. Bailey was the first to bestow officialdom on the newly adopted floral emblem. On July 8, 1903, as commander-in-chief of the state militia he directed that “the collar device of the full-dress, dress and service coats of the officers and enlisted men of the Kansas National Guard shall be the sunflower, according to pattern in the office of the adjutant-general. Aside from this departure, the uniform prescribed for the Kansas National Guard will conform to that of the United States Army, as published in General Orders, No. 132, Headquarters of the Army, Washington, D. C., series 1902.”
Morehouse was right when he wrote that the sunflower could be ideally adapted for artistic reproduction. The floral emblem can now be found on all things Kansan, including the Kansas state flag and the decorative quarter issued by the U.S. Mint in 2005 commemorating the State of Kansas.
As a native plant of North America, no other plant has such global significance as the sunflower. From its beginning See FROM, page 12
From prairie weed to state symbol — the sunflower reigns in Kansas