Safflower is one of humanity's oldest crops, but is a minor crop today, with about 600,000 tons being produced commercially in more than sixty countries worldwide.
Traditionally, the crop was grown for its flowers, used for colouring and flavouring foods and making red and yellow dyes, especially before cheaper aniline dyes became available, and in medicines.
For the last fifty years or so, the plant has been cultivated mainly for the vegetable oil extracted from its seeds.
Safflower oil is flavorless and colorless, and nutritionally similar to sunflower oil. It is used mainly as cooking oil, in salad dressing, and for the production of margarine. It may also be taken as a nutritional supplement.
There are two types of safflower that produce different kinds of oil: one high in monounsaturated fatty acid (oleic acid) and the other high in polyunsaturated fatty acid (linoleic acid).
Currently the predominant oil market is for the former, which is lower in saturates and higher in monounsaturates than olive oil, for example.
Safflower flowers are occasionally used in cooking as a cheaper substitute for saffron, and are thus sometimes referred to as "bastard saffron."
Safflower seed is also used quite commonly as an alternative to sunflower seed in birdfeeders, as squirrels do not like the taste of it.
Safflower oil is also used in painting in the place of linseed oil, particularly with white, as it does not have the yellow tint which linseed oil possesses.
Safflower is a highly branched plant, 30 to 150 cm tall with globular flower heads (capitula) and commonly, brilliant yellow, orange or red flowers which bloom in July. Each branch will usually have from one to five flower heads containing 15 to 20 seeds per head.
Safflower has a strong taproot which enables it to thrive in dry climates, but the plant is very susceptible to frost injury from stem elongation to maturity.
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. A contract is recommended as a safe way to market safflower seed.
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.
U.S. safflower production in 2007 reached nearly 209 million pounds and was valued at $39.2 million. While planted and harvested acres decreased, yield increased, causing production to rise 6 percent from the previous year.