By Michael Boland, University of Minnesota.

Reviewed November 2012 by Diane Huntrods, AgMRC, Iowa State University.


Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) is a broadleaf, annual oilseed crop primarily adapted to grow in the western Great Plains. In the same family as sunflower, it is a thistle-like plant with a strong central branch stem and a varying number of branches. Each branch usually has one to five flower heads and each of those heads contains 15 to 20 seeds. Safflower has a taproot system that can penetrate to depths of eight to 10 feet, making it more tolerant to drought than small grains.

Value-added Products

Traditionally, safflower was grown for the flowers that were used in making red and yellow dyes for clothing and food preparation. Today, safflower provides three main products: oil, meal, and birdseed. Prior to the 1960s in the United States, the oil was used mostly as a base for superior quality paints. It is still used in paints and varnishes because of its non-yellowing characteristic. More recently it has also been used in infant formulas, cosmetics, and salad and cooking oils. Safflower meal is about 24 percent protein and high in fiber and is used as a protein supplement for livestock and poultry feed. Whole safflower seeds are used in the birdseed industry.

Nutritional Value

Two types of safflower oil with corresponding types of safflower varieties exist: those high in monounsaturated fatty acid (oleic) and those high in polyunsaturated fatty acid (linoleic). The safflower varieties that are high in oleic oil are used as a heat stable cooking oil to fry such food items as french fries, chips and other snack items and are also used in cosmetics, food coatings, and infant food formulations. The oil in linoleic safflower contains nearly 75 percent linoleic acid and is used primarily for edible oil products such as salad oils and soft margarines.

There is a considerable health food market for safflower oil. High-oleic safflower oil is lower in saturates and higher in monounsaturates than olive oil and is beneficial in preventing coronary artery disease. Also, monounsaturates such as oleic safflower oil tend to lower blood levels of LDL (“bad” cholesterol) without affecting HDL (“good” cholesterol). Polyunsaturated fats, such as linoleic acids, are associated with lowering blood cholesterol. Both types of oil are considered “high-quality” edible oil, and public awareness about this health topic has made safflower an important crop for vegetable oil.


U.S. safflower production in 2011 declined for the third year in a row, settling at 169.7 million pounds. Yield increased from the previous year, reaching 1,333 pounds per acre, but acreage decreased to 130,700 acres.  (NASS 2012)

California grows 63 percent of the U.S. safflower crop. The state's 2011 crop dropped to 106.4 million pounds. Safflower production in Utah also dropped slightly, to 22.9 million pounds. The remaining domestic production is in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.  (NASS 2012)

Safflower gives options to farmers in a dryland crop rotation with respect to weed and disease control and in using soil moisture available to its deep taproot. It is most often grown in rotation with small grains or on fallow. In areas of wheat production, safflower is also a feasible option because it uses the same equipment as wheat. The crop usually needs 110 to 140 days to mature.

Safflower production is contracted in the spring with a birdseed or oil company for fall delivery. The typical contracts are for 34 percent oilseed, with discounts and premiums adjusting the base price. Production contracts are recommended to reduce risk.

More than 60 countries grow safflower, but over half is produced in India, mainly for the domestic vegetable oil market. Most of the remaining production occurs in the United States, Mexico, Ethiopia, Argentina and Australia.


The average price of safflower in 2011 rose to $24.30 per hundredweight (cwt), while the average price in 2010 was a low $17.20 per cwt. As a result, the value of the 2011 crop totaled nearly $41.2 million.  (NASS 2012)

Large variations in price can be attributed to the relatively few acres under production each year. Changes in planted acres and average yields can dramatically affect the price.


The United States is now a net importer of safflowerseed oil. The value of exported safflower oil dropped 28 percent to $23.4 million in 2011. Japan remains the largest market for U.S. safflower oil, purchasing product valued at nearly $15.1 million in 2011, down 22 percent from 2010. Mexico and Canada are also leading buyers of U.S. safflower oil.

The United States imported safflower oil valued at more than $42.5 million in 2011, up 44 percent from the previous year. Mexico is the source of 87 percent of the oil.  


Links checked November 2013.