I’ll never forget learning about sunflowers. During a few days in 1987 spent with the genius raconteur, plant breeder and seed impresario, Cees Sahin, I traveled through space and time (especially the latter) on the Starship Helianthus. Cees told me the little-known fact that the epicenter of sunflower cultivation was not the US Midwest—no, no!—but the Soviet Union. The Russian Orthodox churches celebrate Lent very strictly, as well as several other “fasts” throughout the year. Cees said the Bible prohibits all sorts of fats and oils. Thus, particularly if you are a poor peasant in starvation-wracked Russia, you run afoul of God Almighty unless you happen to know about sunflowers. Therefore, the native North American cultivar found itself a second and much larger home in the endless river valleys of Russia and the Ukraine.
Happily too, sunflower oil is very good for you, even compared to olive oil, although it tastes less well. Personally, I can handle butter in a very thin layer on toast, and I have long given up fasting, so I enjoy the sunflower exclusively for its great appeal in the garden.
Its virtues are, like the plant itself, plenty in number and profound in meaning. Take height: a standard tall type reaches 8 to 12 feet in less than two months. By season’s end less than three months later the tallest will reach 14 feet and make a trunk at the base that, cut and dried, resembles a Louisville Slugger—you can seriously hurt someone with it. Indeed, sunflowers are being studied for application in cardboard manufacture, which uses wood. Yet the “giant sunflower” produces a bone-crushing bat in 75-80 days, versus 25-30 years, as does a Loblolly Pine.
There’s more: the reason I call this blog entry “Starship Helianthus” is because tall sunflowers produce large disc-shaped flower heads that, for the life of me, look just like the spaceships of 1960s science fiction movies that filled my head when I was a child. (All I wanted was to hop on the next one and get the hell out of Dodge.)
The “spaceship” blasts out of the seed (as a tiny, 1/8″ embryo) and launches itself straight up until it reaches 8 feet or so, all while it is transforming into a full-blown space vessel. At about 10 feet the mature composite flower begins literally tracking the movement of the earth around the sun. It does this to capture the greatest amount of heat and light possible in order to reproduce itself into about 1,500 carbon copies (so to speak).
Science-fiction, indeed. An expensive, computer-based, motor-driven telescope doesn’t work as well as an ordinary sunflower to track our nearest star.
Plus, the sunflower—not too surprisingly—looks like the sun, except at season’s end when it has finished reproducing its multitudinous progeny. Then, at its tallest height, with all its seed fastened to the deck of the spaceship, it bows its magnificent head and seems to sleep, or even to die. However, it is only a biological phase; the sunflower lives at least another month as it dries and slowly ripens its seed. This is when the birds come to feed, hanging upside down or literally eating on the fly.
I am always deeply moved by the sunflowers in my garden in their short but spectacular final act. I slow myself down and then stop—a natural form of “time travel”. Sometimes I get a ladder to climb and inspect the spaceships, see how they managed through their journey. Sunflowers remind me how much my garden is tuned to the movement of the seasons, especially of the earth around the sun. No plant is more cosmically rewarding.