Because it requires 120 frost-free days, producers must plant safflower in late spring. The plant, in the same family as sunflowers, grows slowly and looks similar to a spineless thistle. A strong central stem produces a number of branches. Each branch produces between one and five spiney flowers, usually yellow or red in color. Safflower gets harvested in September, once the plant has finished flowering and most of the leaves are brown—dry but not brittle. Safflower can also be harvested as hay when the plant is still green.
In areas where there are not enough frost-free days for the seeds to reach maturity, safflower can be used as forage hay for livestock, however, safflower is primarily planted for the oil extracted from the seeds. With its high omega-3 content, safflower oil makes an excellent vegetable oil for use in cooking, margarine, and food, as well as in livestock feed. Researchers at Montana State University are leading experimentation with safflower as a bio-diesel and lubricant.