European explorers saw their first sunflower in South America. The Incas grew a tall, single stemmed sunflower from years of selecting and breeding plants from a smaller, native wild flower. Spanish botanists were among the first to receive batches of seeds brought back by the explorers, and by 1580 the sunflower was a common sight in Spanish villages. From Spain, the sunflower spread to Italy, Egypt, India, China, and Russia where it was first grown commercially as an important oilseed crop.
The American Indians grew the sunflower as a food crop and ate the calcium-rich seeds As with most plants cultivated by indigenous people who lived close to the earth, the sunflower had more than one use. A yellow dye was extracted from the petals, oil was extracted and used for ceremonial body painting, the stalks produced an exceptionally light fiber - still said to be one of the lightest fibers known - and the blooming times of the plant indicated dates in the hunting calendar.