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 ten feet, making it more tolerant to drought than small grains.
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.
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 2016 totaled 220 million pounds. Yield increased from 2015, reaching 1,425 pounds per acre in 2016. However, acreage decreased to 161,000 acres. (NASS 2017)
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 2016 was $4.84 per pound. As a result, the value of the 2016 crop totaled more than $45 million. (NASS 2017)
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.
- Crop Production Annual Summary, National Ag Statistical Service (NASS), USDA.
- Crop Values Annual Summary, NASS, USDA.
- Global Ag Trade System, Foreign Ag Service (FAS), USDA.
- Growing Safflower in Nebraska, University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension Service - This guide provides information on the production and marketing of safflower.
- New Safflower Lines Survive Winters, Ag Research Service (ARS), USDA, 2008.
- Oil Crops Outlook, Economic Research Service (ERS), USDA.
- Oil Crops Yearbook, ERS, USDA - Examines supply, use, prices and trade for oil crops, including supply and demand prospects in major importing and exporting countries.
- Safflower, Alternative Field Crops Manual, University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension Service and University of Minnesota Extension Service, 1992.
- Safflower, The New American Farmer, SARE, NIFA, USDA.
- Safflower, Oregon State University Extension Service, 2002.
- Safflower, WebMD - Find medical information for safflower including its uses, effectiveness, side effects and safety and interactions.
- Sunflower Genetic Resources Homepage sponsored by the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) and the International Safflower Germplasm Advisory Committee.
- Safflower Production, North Dakota State University, 2007.
- Safflower Production on the Canadian Prairies, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2004.
Links checked August 2018.