Saturday, September 10, 2011
Worshipping the Sun God
These huge, geometrically structured annual flowers vibrate with color, and never fail to grab attention. Over the last few decades they have have become iconic in nature, decorating many household and clothing items. According to Allan M. Armitage in his Manual of Annuals, Biennials, and Half-Hardy Perennials (Timber Press, 2001), this is due to a few factors. Armitage states the first acclaim for the sunflower emerged upon the 'centenary of van Gogh's death in 1990' and the subsequent promotion of his art.' Van Gogh is famous, of course, for his paintings of sunflowers. Another event Armitage mentions is the introduction of a pollenless hybrid from Japan at about the same time. I don't know about that. I have always loved sunflowers and gladly put up with the pollen falling from the flowers onto my tables, but I suppose florist found this a welcome trait which probably led to the flower's greater use in professional arrangements and a wider exposure to the public.
Named after the Greek sun god Helios because the flower heads seem to always face the sun, it is myth that the flowers actually follow the sun across the sky. Some claim they only face east, but mine face south. It may surprise flower lovers to know the genus also includes many perennials. (Jerusalem artichokes, anyone? Very tasty!) However, it is the huge flowers of the annual species, Helianthus annus, that arouses human adoration, and this species originated in North and Central America where the Aztecs first venerated them. The Spanish took seeds back to Europe where growers developed flowers with spectacular results.
The plants grow from three to twelve feet tall, depending on species and cultivar, and the flowers may be a few inches in diameter to as much as a foot or more across. Newer cultivars may be shorter in stature, but the flowers come in amazing colors ranging from lemon yellow through gold and mahogany colored rays. They are well worth the effort to grow. Needless to say they make a statement in the garden or a flower arrangement, and a field grown for seed production is a stunning sight.
Online you will find herbal remedies and all types of lore, legend, and myth about sunflowers. Some witch and pagan oriented sites speak of the flower's 'energy.' How could a genus that provides such beauty, food and oil with such little care not engender legendary acclaim?
Sunflowers do best if planted directly in soil at or just before the last frost date in a site chosen for its sunny location. Once established the plants do well for themselves, but fertilizing every two weeks or so helps them grow to their full potential. It is amazing to watch them grow to the heights they can achieve, but beware! Deer love sunflowers, too. The stalks are often thick and fibrous, especially with the very tall growing types. It takes strength to hold those large flower heads so high! The leaves correspond in scale and size to the flowers. Do to their size they look coarse and ungainly, and can sometimes irritate a susceptible person's skin. Another warning: bees often hover in the flower's central disk. Despite these few drawbacks, if sunflowers don't make your heart glow with warmth, you might not be human.