This paper describes the creation of a cDNA microarray for annual sunflowers and its use to elucidate patterns of gene expression in Helianthus annuus, Helianthus petiolaris, and the homoploid hybrid species Helianthus deserticola. The array comprises 3743 ESTs (expressed sequence tags) representing approximately 2897 unique genes. It has an average clone/EST identity rate of 91%, is applicable across species boundaries within the annual sunflowers, and shows patterns of gene expression that are highly reproducible according to real-time RT-PCR (reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction) results. Overall, 12.8% of genes on the array showed statistically significant differential expression across the three species. Helianthus deserticola displayed transgressive, or extreme, expression for 58 genes, with roughly equal numbers exhibiting up- or down-regulation relative to both parental species. Transport-related proteins were strongly over-represented among the transgressively expressed genes, which makes functional sense given the extreme desert floor habitat of H. deserticola. The potential adaptive value of differential gene expression was evaluated for five genes in two populations of early generation (BC2) hybrids between the parental species grown in the H. deserticola habitat. One gene (a G protein-coupled receptor) had a significant association with fitness and maps close to a QTL controlling traits that may be adaptive in the desert habitat.