Every summer on the Great Plains, fields of sunflowers lift their golden heads to the sky.

“You see a field of it and you just can’t help but be drawn to it,” says Brent Hulke, a research geneticist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He says these dazzling flowers are grown for their edible seeds and oil.

Sunflowers are hardy, but as the climate changes, farmers are experiencing more extreme weather.

Drought and heat are increasing from Kansas through Texas. Meanwhile, North Dakota and Minnesota are getting more rain, which increases the risk of wet-weather diseases.

So Hulke is breeding new varieties that better tolerate these conditions.

In some cases, that involves crossing domestic sunflower strains with wild ones that thrive in extreme environments such as deserts or wetlands.

“So we’ll produce new experimental hybrids and actually grow them in farmers’ fields, where they’re experiencing these conditions,” Hulke says.

The research is paying off: Northern farmers who are growing some of the new, more resilient varieties have seen a decrease in wet-weather diseases.

And Hulke says that continued breeding experiments will help make sure that even as weather patterns change, sunflowers continue to thrive.

Reporting credit: Stephanie Manuzak/ChavoBart Digital Media