Kansas has long been identified as the Sunflower State. The Native Americans relied on the sunflower for food. Early pioneers observed its profusion and noted how important it was to the birds of the plains.
The Love of Kansas for the Sunflower
In the homestead days of Kansas, many a country essayist or versifier celebrated the beauty of the sunflower, with its open countenance and cheerful expression. It was grown on many farms simply for its ornamental appearance. Women’s suffrage advocates in other states adopted it as a symbol of their cause as early as 1848, and it eventually became a favorite badge in Kansas, as well.
Even those who were of a more prosaic bent valued the sunflower for its utility. Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, Kansas newspapers hailed the potential of the sunflower in many areas. The stalks would serve as bean poles in summer and heat the house on cold winter days, while a paper mill in Salina reported resounding success with crushing the stalks for pulp for paper. Bees that fed on the nectar of the sunflower reportedly gave the finest honey. Its leaves and seeds were said to give a glow to show poultry, rapid weight gain to hogs and beef steers, and a fine coat to horses and mules in the winter, while flour from ground sunflower seeds was just the thing for tea cakes. Sunflower oil was thought to make a superb varnish, a delectable salad dressing, and an effective medium for the preservation of sardines.
More than this, some even contended that the cultivation of sunflowers had profoundly beneficial effects on air quality and therefore on the health of the farmer and his family. Planting sunflowers close to a house was said to reduce dampness, absorb harmful vapors in the air, and emit beneficial ozone, thus warding off malaria.
As early as 1880, writers in newspapers began to call for the sunflower to be adopted as the emblem of Kansas. On October 11, 1881, The Atchison Daily Champion remarked:
The sunflower does not share in the unpopularity attached to most weeds. There is something taking in the cheerful impudence with which it appears….
Some day when the present State seal with its astronomical Latin is abolished, a new coat of arms of Kansas will be suspended on the walls of the Capitol, to-wit: “on a field, green, a sunflower, yellow, rampant.”
The Eradication Attempt
Yet for many years, the Kansas legislature did not share the sentiment.
The sunflower was first deemed a weed by the state legislature in 1886. The statute law of that year read:
It shall be the duty of the road overseer, etc.,…to destroy all cockleburs, Rocky mountain sand burs, sunflowers, Canada thistle, and all other obnoxious weeds as may be injurious to the best interest of the farming community.
On August 13, 1895, The Leavenworth Times applauded this law and urged that it be better enforced along the roads:
In many cases the weeds, and particularly sunflowers, grow from ten to fifteen feet high, with barely room in the centre of the road for a wagon to pass. It is not only a disgraceful sight for the people of Kansas, but it makes an unfavorable impression on every visitor from abroad who comes to the State.
Perhaps this zeal against the sunflower came from the fact that it was generally believed in the late 1800s that the sunflower was hard on the land. On June 25, 1886, The Daily Sentinel of Garden City reported:
Few plants are so exhaustive of potash—the constituent in which most soils are deficient—as the sunflower; and its cultivation, which of late has been recommended by the agricultural press, for various uses, would soon render fertile soils unproductive.
However, the irony of the situation was not lost on farmers. An article titled “The Sunflower Crop” appeared in the February 9, 1892, edition of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and described the many uses to which the sunflower was put in Russia. This article contained a great deal of information on sunflower cultivation, as well as the assurances of Russian experts that the sunflower actually enriched the land rather than depleted it. An abridged version of “The Sunflower Crop” made the rounds in Kansas papers for several months afterward under the title “Money in Sunflowers,” accompanied by a pointed introduction not found in the original:
Kansas ought to be interested in the great sunflower industry which Russia is fostering at an enormous annual profit. Kansas destroys its phenomenal sunflower crop. Russia cultivates the sunflower as a source of national wealth.
Coming to Terms with the Sunflower
Evidently, however, the majority of Kansas did not give up on the sunflower.
On February 6, 1901, The Wichita Daily Eagle triumphantly opined:
The editor of the Memphis Appeal wonders why Kansas was ever designated as the Sunflower state. Simply because it is the most gorgeous flower that grows. It is indigenous to the soil, an offspring of the sun and the denouement of Kansas climate. Where, on the plains, all vegetation fails, there the sunflower diut[u]rnally and everlastingly blooms. That’s why.
In March 1903, the Kansas legislature conceded and passed the following resolution, still on the books today:
WHEREAS, Kansas has a native wild flower common throughout her borders, hardy and conspicuous, of definite, unvarying and striking shape, easily sketched, moulded, and carved, having armorial capacities, ideally adapted for artistic reproduction, with its strong, distinct disk and its golden circle of clear glowing rays—a flower that a child can draw on a slate, a woman can work in silk, or a man can carve on stone or fashion in clay; and
WHEREAS, This flower has to all Kansans a historic symbolism which speaks of frontier days, winding trails, pathless prairies, and is full of the life and glory of the past, the pride of the present, and richly emblematic of the majesty of a golden future, and is a flower which has given Kansas the world-wide name, “the sunflower state”: therefore,
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.
By all appearances, the people of Kansas gladly hailed their new emblem. After all, they had been wearing it as a badge when visiting other states, anyway. That summer, the officers of the Kansas National Guard were ordered to wear the sunflower on their collars as part of their dress uniform.
Eventually, The Topeka Daily Capital conveniently forgot that the Kansas legislature had ever counted the state emblem as a weed. When Missouri’s Supreme Court declared the sunflower to be a weed, the Capital proudly displayed a headline on December 27, 1903, reading “Sunflower is Not a Weed: Legislature Says So, and It Ought to Know.”
Not a bad comeback for a plant previously declared a noxious weed!