Following the Sunflower

sunflower_butterfly_by_randy66-d6hi3nwSome say the sunflower is a symbol of loyalty, since day after day if follows the sun.  In Greek mythology, a water nymph was so in love with Apollo that she would watch him hopefully as he moved across the sky.  However, the sun god became so annoyed by her constancy that he turned her into a sunflower.  Helen Keller said, “Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see shadows.  It’s what the sunflowers do.”

But do these vibrant, majestic beauties actually follow the sun, as lore and common assumption suggest?  One can only believe this to be true when admiring a field of black-eyed Susans or a neat row of giant Mammoth sunflowers all facing the same direction.  Some scientists will tell you that, although it would appear true, it is a common misconception that the flower heads of the cultivated sunflower, Helianthus annuus, actually tract the sun.  Yet science does admit there is some truth to this notion after all.

The concept of heliotropism refers to the plant’s response to the daily cycle of the sun.  This is not to be confused with phototropism, which is a plant’s growth response to light in general.  It is believed that an innate circadian clock may contribute to the activation of tracking movements.  These movements may continue if the light cycle is interrupted, such as during the night or on cloudy days, or the tracking movements may be triggered in anticipation of dawn.  It has been noted that immature flower buds will indeed track the sun from east to west and in the morning will again be facing the sunrise.

But what about those big, open blooms whose faces always seem to be transfixed on the eastern horizon, waiting patiently as if the sun had not already reached its zenith and beyond?  Age and maturity play a part here, since, as the bud matures and blooms, the once-supple stem thickens and stiffens, becoming unyielding and fixed to the east.  So it stands to reason that if Apollo had just been patient with the besotted young sea nymph, she would eventually lost interest as she aged.

From a respective distance, a sunflower bloom may look like on big flower, but upon closer inspection the head of Helianthus annuus, Asteraceae family, is made of many tiny flowers.  Each floret, or disk flower, has five tiny petals fused together, plus five stamens fused around a pistil with antennae like stigmas.  In other words, each disk flower is a complete flower in its own.

For the urban or backyard gardener desiring to become better acquainted with these regal flowers, there are only a few important things to know before adding sunflowers to the landscape or garden.  Naturally, the space any plant needs is relative to the size of that particular variety.  If you want big sunflowers, such as the Mammoth or California Greystripe, you will need plenty of room for them to spread their large branches and leaves, as well as foot room for the larger root system needed to support these massive bodies and heads.  To keep the blooms happy, they will need at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day.  Like most short-lived annuals, which need and use a lot of energy in order to produce in one season, sunflowers have voracious appetites and will need deep, pre-soil prep with composted manure or other organic matter, followed by regular additions of a balanced organic fertilizer.  For vigorous growth, and to avoid slow or spotty germination, the seeds should be sown directly into the soil after danger of frost, or when the soil temp reaches at least 55-60 degrees.  Your plants should be watered regularly, as sunflowers do not respond well to undue stress.  Protect them from winds by staking or tying.  Be attentive to their simple needs and they will reward with an array of gorgeous blooms.

This trendy garden favorite has once again enamored with its royal beauty and sunny disposition.  Despite limited space, plant size is not an issue.  The golds, yellows and pastels are popular but the doubles and pompoms are less favored.  There seems to be something about sunflowers just looking like sunflowers with their cheerful colors and sunny stoic faces!  Gardeners are not unlike the great Van Gogh and other artist who found solace and joy in nature, but instead of displaying our feelings on canvas we adorn our gardens.  And whether or not those golden sunflowers are actually equipped with solar tracking, we ourselves instinctively know that if we keep our faces to the sunshine, we will never see the shadows.          (reprint from HERLIFE Magazine, June 2016)

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