On Monday I bought two sunflowers at the market and planted them in a pot outside our house. Everyone who passes sees their smiling yellow faces and smiles back. Sunflowers know the secret of life is to follow the sun.
The Sun God Apollo once fell in love with a water nymph named Clytie. When his head was turned by a rival nymph, he changed Clytie into a sunflower whose head always turned to the sun. I am not sure how the Greek myth came into being as the sunflower is native to North America, but mythology like religion is only a metaphor.
Sunflowers began life as big messy bushes. The Indians 4,500 years ago started cultivating them to produce a single-stemmed plant with male stamen (androecium) around the edges and the feminine carpel (gynoecium) at the centre. The androgynous sunflower self-pollinates and provides us with a yearly supply of seeds and unsaturated oil.
Flowers turning their heads to the sun is called heliotropism. They all do it, people too, but sunflowers with their emoji faces and corona of bright yellow petals create what the Italians call a bella figura, a fireworks display of colour and light. Keep a sunflower on your windowsill and you will never be sad.
Vincent van Gogh once wrote to his brother: ‘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.’
Poor Vincent. The artist’s artist. The artist who cut off his ear after a bad-tempered row with his friend Paul Gauguin. The artist who never sold a painting in his lifetime and watched philosophically from his place in heaven as one of his sunflower paintings sold at auction in London in 1985 for $39.85 million.
When I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and saw Vincent’s bold, sunny sunflowers in creamy whirls of paint it brought both tears to my eyes and a smile to my lips. I understood van Gogh’s joy and pain and it made me feel renewed, creative, born again. He knew he was on the right path, ahead of his time, and didn’t care what the critics said or that the art buyers ignored his work.
I rather enjoyed Vincent’s reference to the man from Marseilles and can imagine nothing more glorious than sitting down to a plate bouillabaisse with a glass of red wine (not white), a view of the Mediterranean and a vase of freshly cut sunflowers.
Some Sunflower Facts
🌻 Sunflowers bloom during summer and follow the sun into autumn.
🌻 Each sunflower is actually thousands of teeny flowers.
🌻 Each sunflower produces up to 2,000 seeds.
🌻 There are seventy species of sunflowers.
🌻 The tallest sunflower on record was over thirty feet tall.
If all your dreams have broken and gone, if you feel isolated in your own private world, go out this minute and buy a sunflower. Place it on a sunny shelf, give it a little water every day – not too much – and as its big yellow face turns to the sun you will feel your lips lift in a smile knowing that you have learned the secret life of sunflowers.