Mutations Baffle Priest: Unusual sun Flowers Spur Multiple Theories

Baker, Marvin. "Mutations Baffle Priest: Unusual sun Flowers Spur Multiple Theories." Minot Daily News, 16 September 2002, sec. A1 & A8 .

A retired priest is baffled by numerous sunflower plants growing in his back yard that contain a variety of mutations.

Four of the sunflowers he can explain. They are "mammoth" plants that were purchased from a seed company this spring. They've all grown to about 8 feet tall. The other 10 are shorter and a complete mystery.

A contest that started a year ago with a neighbor to have the tallest sunflower plant on the block, has turned into the talk of Senger's northwest Minot neighborhood.

One of the plants has 22 heads, five of which are producing seeds. On one of the plants, there's a tiny head coming out of every spot where the stalk meets the leaf stem. Another plant splits into a "Y" just above the ground and has two healthy plants and heads. Another has two heads growing together and yet another has leaves growing out of the back of the heads. The other six plants have multiple heads.

Senger isn't sure what to make of his strange plants and intends to talk to some experts to figure out what happened. He said some of his friends have told him the plants are wild sunflowers, since wild species produce multiple heads. The only problem with that theory, according to Senger, is that wild sunflowers produce tiny seeds in tiny heads. On the contrary, Senger's plants appear in all likelihood to be developing normal oil and confectionery sunflower seeds.

The plants aren't as tall as normal sunflower plants usually are. But, according to Senger, they are definitely producing seeds.

Staff members at Lowe's Garden Center in Minot said some species of sunflowers will have high petal counts on the heads, however, no commercial varieties are known to produce multiple heads. Dunn County farmer Bill Flaget, who has been growing sunflowers about 30 years, said he has never heard of such a thing. Ward County Extension Agent Mike Rose wasn't immediately available for comment.

Numerous Internet sites relating to sunflowers had no information about mutated plants including multiple heads.

The only thing that makes logical sense now, according to Senger, is that the plants are cross-pollinated between wild and domestic sunflower species.

"I have never seen anything like this except those plants that stick up above the rest in fields," Senger said. "But they don't produce anything. I'm sure it's a gene mutation of some type."

What makes this story even more interesting is that Senger received the seeds a year ago from a parishioner who scooped them up off the ground at the Velva elevator. One of those seeds produced a plant that had 30 heads, he said.

He wintered the seeds and planted them this spring. Twenty-one plants emerged, but he said 11 of them were sickly so he removed them through the course of the summer.

"I haven't told the elevator folks in Velva," Senger said. "But I have mentioned it to a lot of people."

Senger, who didn't use fertilizer or chemical on the plants, believes that he probably waters them too much, however. He said he's been pushing the plants to get the contest edge on his neighbor. He didn't think this would be the result.

There was some grasshopper pressure on the leaves and birds have pecked a few seeds from the heads. Otherwise, the plants look healthy going into autumn.

He talks about the mutant plants with a sense of humor.

"This is very unusual," Senger said. "On this one with the five good heads; if I can harvest this, I can increase production of sunflowers by 500 percent and give these ag companies some competition. If you hear I quit my profession, you know I'm out selling sunflower seeds."

Senger, who was the parish priest at St. Cecilia Catholic Church in Velva for 15 years, now fills in at churches across the state. He often assists at St. Leo's Catholic Church in Minot.

"This is only the second year I've planted sunflowers," Senger said. "We didn't plant sunflowers commercially when I was growing up. But we always put a plant or two in the cornfield. We didn't have large fields, but we always had sunflower seeds to chew on when we were picking corn. It was a trick my parents used to get us to enjoy picking corn."

Senger said his friends outside of Minot don't want to believe him even though he's a priest.

"I'm going to save the heads and the seeds and plant them next year," he said. "If nothing else, I will plant them on my family's farm near Orrin."

There's a story in the Bible about a mustard seed growing into a tree. Senger likes to sometimes use that analogy when he's describing his sunflowers.

"I've never seen a mustard seed grow into a tree," he said. "But I've seen tiny sunflower seeds grow into tall and strange plants."

The Rev. Joseph Senger points to a mammoth sunflower head in his back yard Saturday. Senger, a novice gardener, has four of the flora giants, but he also has 10 sunflower plants with unusual mutations.
Although shorter than a normal sunflower, this plant, with two complete stems, has two full heads that appear healthy. It's one of several mutated plants Senger has growing in his back yard in Minot.

Reprinted with permission of Minot Daily News.

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