I am working with the enthusiasm of a man from Marseilles eating bouillabaisse,
which shouldn’t come as a surprise to you because I am busy painting huge sunflowers.
- Vincent Van Gogh, letter to his brother Theo
Sunflowers (Helianthus Annuus), so yellow, so grand, like yawning lions with sleep-rumpled manes.
A flower with an ancient past, sunflowers originated in the Americas* and not in Europe, although lovers of Provence associate the enormous sun-following heads of these flowers with warm, endless fields of lavender surrounding a rustic stone mas.
Lovers of poetry and the sunniness of sunflowers struggle with William Blake’s take on the sunflower:
Ah Sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun;
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done;
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves, and aspire
Where my Sunflower wishes to go!
Alan Ginsberg , the beat poet, wrote “Sunflower Sutra,” after an encounter with a dried-up sunflower in the company of Jack Kerouac in 1955:
- So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck
- it at my side like a scepter,
- and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack’s soul
- too, and anyone who’ll listen,
- — We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread
- bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all
- beautiful golden sunflowers inside, we’re blessed
- by our own seed & golden hairy naked
- accomplishment— bodies growing into mad black
- formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our
- eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive
- riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening
- sitdown vision.
And lovers of art revel in the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, and others, who — awed by the open-faced sunflower — sought to convey the fleeting feelings that the bright-hued flower engraved on their souls. Romantic? Maybe. But there’s something about sunflowers, isn’t there?
In The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness , Simon Wiesenthal explored what it means to forgive, using the sunflowers marking the graves of dead Germans as a metaphor. This spiritual book sparked much discussion and much reflection, and still does, providing a point of view that usually is unspoken in our world, so filled with unnecessary and destructive anger.
Native Americans recognized something spiritual in the sunflower, too, but used it like they utilized the buffalo: every part served some purpose. According to the National Sunflower Association, Native Americans ground or pounded the seeds for making of flat stone-cooked cakes, mush, and bread, or they added ground seeds to dishes cooked with the Holy Trinity of the Native American diet: beans, squash, and corn.
Sunflowers sailed to Europe in the early 1500s with the Spanish returning from their violent forays into the New World. At first seen as an oddity, the sunflower eventually changed agriculture. Once Russian farmers, perhaps thanks to Peter the Great, began commercial production of this oil-rich plant, and cornered the world market on sunflower oil in the late nineteenth century, the sunflower again became important in the Americas, where growers wished to cash in on the economic bonanza. Yet, between 1856 and 1872, no mention of the sunflower existed in contemporary gardening books. Large-scale production of sunflower oil took off. Today’s commercialized sunflower is a hybrid, bred to resist disease and increase the amount of oil produced. Sunflowers now grow in Africa, too, and are an important part of agriculture in that part of the world.
So how do you eat sunflowers? Or do you?
In his 1597 Generall Historie of Plants, herbalist John Gerard called the sunflower the “Floure of the Sun, or the Marigold of Peru.” He wrote
There hath not any thing bin set down either of the antient or later writers, concerning the vertues of these plants, notwithstanding we have found by triall, that the buds before they floured boiled and eaten with butter, vinegar, and pepper, after the manner of Artichokes, are exceedingly pleasant meat.
Aside from sunflower oil, most people today eat sunflowers in the form of seeds, as salty snacks and additions to bread.
Yet, as artists and poets prove, the nourishing nature of the sunflower lies not only in its seeds or its oil.
People gravitate to the sunflower, like pollen-rich flowers attract bees, basking in the light the sunflower seems to strew in its daily path of heaven watching.
A gallery of sunflower pictures provides an escape into summer dreams, hard to let go, as the sun persists in its winter trajectory.
*Controversy surrounds just where and how the sunflower originated, however.
© 2011 C. Bertelsen