Wild sunflowers — whether growing beside a fast-food restaurant parking lot or clinging to shifting sand dunes — are worth their weight in gold to Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists.

Wild species seeds, according to the researchers, contain genes for improving cultivated sunflower and bolstering its resistance to insect pests and diseases. Genes from one such species led to cytoplasmic male sterility, the mechanism by which today's sunflower breeders develop new sunflower hybrids. The economic value of traits already bred into cultivated sunflower from wild species is an estimated $267 million to $384 million annually.

ARS scientists have been collecting wild sunflowers since 1976, amassing representative populations of the 50 known Helianthus species, according to scientists Tom Gulya and Gerald Seiler, in the ARS Sunflower Research Unit, Fargo, N.D. Accessions are placed in the ARS National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS) at Ames, Iowa, for safekeeping and distribution to sunflower researchers worldwide.