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Earth Notes: Havasupai Sunflower

Native Seed SEARCH

The sunflower family is the second largest plant family on the planet with more than 20,000 species. Sunflowers can be found in nearly all of the world’s habitats, including at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Deep within the walls of Havasu Canyon lies a rich agricultural tradition that has brought power and life to the Havasupai tribal people. Havasu Creek supplies abundant water to irrigate orchards of pomegranate, peach, and fig; fields of corn, pumpkin, squash, and beans; and the esteemed Havasupai sunflower.

It was little known by the outside world until one fateful season in 1994. A rust blight was devastating commercially-grown sunflowers, threatening to wipe out a multimillion-dollar industry. Plant pathologists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigated hundreds of sunflower varieties in search of resistance to the harmful rust strains. Just one variety was resistant to all tested strains; the Havasupai sunflower.

Havasupai Tribal member Dianasue Uqualla says the sunflower’s story reflects the ingenuity of her people and their vast horticultural knowledge. She and tribal member Carletta Tilousi recently visited Native Seed Search in Tucson, a repository for the sunflower seeds acquired in 1978 from Havasupai Village and later used in the rust testing.

Dianasue Uqualla acknowledges the elders, like the late Minnie Marshall, who gave the seeds as a gift—a gift that, in turn, restored sunflowers to the world. And she was happy to bring the seeds (that made their way around the globe) home to Havasupai again.

This Earth Note was written by Carrie Calisay Cannon and produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.

Carrie Calisay Cannon is a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, and also of Oglala Lakota and German ancestry. She has a B.S. in Wildlife Biology and an M.S. in Resource Management. If you wish to connect with Carrie you will need a fast horse; by weekday she fills her days as a full-time Ethnobotanist with the Hualapai Indian Tribe of the Grand Canyon of Arizona, by weekend she is a lapidary and silversmith artist who enjoys chasing the beautiful as she creates Native southwestern turquoise jewelry.
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