Implementing solutions to climate change will require big ideas and an even bigger mobilization of resources, but high technology doesn’t always have the answers. Plant physiologist Laura Marek and research botanical Gerald Seiler are seed searchers who have spent the past 11 years searching for sunflowers that, in their ability to quickly adapt to environmental changes, may hold the key to boosting resilience against climate change.
Traditional agriculture is threatened by the volatile climate of coming centuries. “Creating hybrids used to entail breeding for specific environments,” explains Marek. Specific, static environments are becoming less common as global temperatures continue to rise. Plant breeders now seek species that can handle dramatic changes in environment, such as the rare sunflower Helianthus anomalus.
Found only in the American Southwest, H. anomalus is extremely heat, disease and drought-resistant. The sunflower produces flowers and seeds twice annually, during the cooler seasons that bookend the summer heat. The seeds of the plant are large and contain a higher oil content than any other wild sunflower. Although sunflowers are primarily known for their aesthetic value in the United States, sunflower oil is a staple food in countries like China, Russia, and Argentina. Sunflowers are the world’s second most cultivated hybrid seed crop, although only 3 percent of the yearly crop is grown in the United States. Of the 70 Helianthus/sunflower species, 67 are native to North America.
The seed searchers are racing against the clock to discover rare, super-hardy species of sunflowers. “The Southwest is getting so much hotter and drier,” says Marek, “that it could squeeze out some of these native sunflowers.” While Marek and Seiler scour the continent for seeds, the Fort Collins seed bank and the U.S. Forest Service have begun work to identify and protect areas of ecological importance in the search for sunflowers. After the rare Helianthus anomalus and others like it are properly preserved in a seed bank, their seeds will be available for the global public to propagate. Super sunflowers coming soon to a neighborhood near you.
Via Modern Farmer
Images via Wikimedia