Published: March 28, 2024

The University Libraries is handing out red sunflower seed packets to the CU Boulder community on April 18 and April 22 for Earth Day from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. at the East Entrance of Norlin Library as part of a take-home gardening project called One Seed. The project explores the red sunflower’s historical ties to CU Boulder, and the scientific aspects of this unique plant.

Seed packets will also be available at the Ask a Librarian desk in Norlin and each of the campus libraries’ service desks starting April 18.

The origins of the red sunflower: 

In 1910, Wilmatte Porter Cockerell, a high school biology teacher, noticed a red sunflower growing in the wild across the street from her home in Boulder. Along with her husband, Theodore Dru Allison Cockerell, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, Cockerell transplanted the sunflower into her own garden. 

The flower was a "sport," a spontaneous mutation resulting in morphological differences in a plant. With their backgrounds in the sciences, the Cockerells knew that sunflowers are unable to be fertilized with their own pollen, and so experimented in cross-pollinating the sunflower with others until the desired red color was visible in the flower's offspring.  

The Cockerells were able to sell seeds carrying the red mutation to seed companies and were recognized at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition for their work in cultivating the unique flowers. The many varieties of red sunflowers available all over the world today are believed to be descendants of the one carefully tended by the Cockerells in Boulder, Colorado.

The University Libraries Archives holds 60 linear feet of physical archival materials from the Cockerells, including the original red sunflower—now nearly a century old. Elements of the T.D.A. Cockerell Collection have been digitized and can be found via the CU Digital Library.

Explore the collection online  Study the collection in-person