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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Today I finished reading a book that my nephew Andrew bought me for Christmas.

He’s a pretty spectacular kid. Pretty sure since he could point and say “that” he has been buying me gifts. Not just gifts but things that actually demonstrate a thought process. We don’t see each other much, but somehow he knows stuff about me. A few years ago it was a yoga mat. Then it was an herb garden starter kit.

You might think my brother prompts him, but he doesn’t. He lets Andrew make his own choices, which is quite spectacular in itself.

Anyway, this year Andrew sent me a book called The Secret Life Of Sunflowers. Why? Because he knows I like sunflowers.

He bought Ralph Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance because he knows Ralph likes the Buddhist stuff.

Did I mention he’s spectacular?

Naturally I read the book. I didn’t even read the blurb on the back, just trusted in the brilliance of my nephew. Turns out it was historical fiction about how Vincent Van Gogh’s sister-in-law was basically responsible for his posthumous fame.

I quite enjoyed it, and even learned a few things I didn’t know, like the fact that Vincent Van Gogh’s sister-in-law was basically responsible for his posthumous fame. Those are the best books, the ones that inspire you to keep learning after you put it down, because it sparked something in your brain.

I won’t spoil the book because I highly recommend it, but do you know which of Van Gogh’s paintings she didn’t sell? The sunflower.

Depending on how you interpret the history, there were either 11 paintings with “sunflowers as the subject” or 7 paintings of sunflowers.

Of all the 200-odd paintings she inherited after her husband died, Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger kept only five. All sunflowers. Then she gave three to museums and kept two, then eventually sold one and kept a single painting of sunflowers. There’s something poetic about that.

I’ve always had an affinity for Van Gogh. His paintings speak to me and his story intrigues me. One of the only art prints I ever owned was Starry Night.

Never Sunflowers, though, which seems like a grave oversight.

Maybe next year Andrew will see fit to send one.

Sunflowers make me very happy. They’re big and bold and bright and everything I love. I don’t think anyone who really knows me has ever bought me a bouquet of roses or a bunch of lilac or anything at all unless a sunflower was involved.

My father calls them monstrosities. It’s pretty funny that two of the things I love best in life – birds and sunflowers – are the two things that each of my parents dislikes the most.

And I wasn’t even trying to be contrary, I swear.

You know what else is cool about sunflowers? They’re delicious. Or the seeds are, anyway. You can get them shelled which makes it convenient to shovel them into your mouth but I prefer the ones in the shells because I enjoy the experience of cracking them open, and that little burst of salt you get from the shell and then the tiny treasure inside.

Sunflower butter is one of my favorite things to put on crackers or a chunk of dark chocolate or in a loaf of banana bread.

I learned quite a few interesting things about sunflowers since reading that book because it inspired me to do so.

For instance, did you know that they are composite flowers, which means they have two kinds of florets? Ray florets are the yellow petals, and disc florets are the ones that can develop into seeds.

Each flower has up to 2,000 disc florets, which is a spectacular amount of snacking.

The discs are also both male and female, which means sunflowers can be self-pollinating. Bumblebees love sunflowers, and I love bumblebees.

Not a fan of wasps, as you may know from my barrel post, but bumblebees are pretty cool. They’re fuzzy and cute, if a bee can be called cute, and they are pretty docile. They won’t sting you unless you really really really ask them to and they are not interested in your glass of iced tea or being in your face, so I don’t mind having them around.

Sunflowers get their name because when they’re babies their faces will follow the sun. That’s called heliotropism. Once they’re mature though, they only ever face one direction – east. It’s why you can see a vast field of sunflowers and they look so orderly and synchronous. They don’t just grow all helter skelter.

Fear of sunflowers is called helianthophobia. Not sure there is a word for “thinking sunflowers are monstrosities” though.

When Van Gogh painted them, they were considered pedestrian and much too lowly for a great artist to be concerned with, which probably contributed to his inferior position in the art world. But that didn’t deter him. They symbolized happiness and gratitude for him, which is something I completely understand.

How can you not be grateful for a flower that loves the sun and is delicious?

A group of protesters called Just Stop Oil threw cans of tomato soup at the painting in a London gallery just last year. They were demonstrating against the high cost of oil and gas, and its effects on the price of food. They questioned whether it was more important to protect art or people.

I think they fundamentally missed the point.

The pattern of seeds in a sunflower follows the Fibonacci sequence. Its spirals create the Golden Ratio, which is a pattern found in so many places in nature that it will blow your mind. In seashells. In hurricanes. In the flight pattern of a hawk.

Some time ago I bought a book about that, too, but it’s way above my head. I’m not the most mathematically inclined person you’ll meet, but it’s cool to know there is an order to things.

I did find a video that actually explained it in terms I could understand, but mostly just knowing it exists is cool enough for me. If you’re so inclined you can watch it here.

Maybe I need to pick up a few at the Farmers Market. I don’t think they’re in season yet but I can wait.

Oh, here is another thing. Sunflowers are actually native to North America. So you can imagine those snarly French painters with a baguette under one arm wondering why Van Gogh was focusing on such a gauche American thing.

But even here, sunflowers weren’t really all that. They may have just bloomed themselves into obscurity if not for the Russians. Peter the Great cultivated them, and sunflowers became popular for their oil because the Russian Orthodox Church forbid eating most oils during Lent – except sunflower oil.

These days it’s the symbol of Ukrainian resistance against Russian invasion.

In the interest of not turning this into an encyclopedic tome, I will leave you with this fun fact: the record holder for tallest sunflower in the world goes to one grown in Germany that reached 30 feet and one inch tall.

Best place for sunflowers though? In a vase on my table.

Photo top: sunflowers growing with no help at all, right here in Franklin, Tennessee.
Photo bottom: a sunflower at the farmers market last year. The bumblebees were free.