Omniscience In The Garden

Sunflowers are the embodiment of familiarity and cheerfulness. But there is something slightly oppressive about that huge omniscient eye. Illustration by Dan Salmieri

Thanks to Charlotte Mendelson for perspective on the biggest flower we know, the flower that seems to know all:

On Sunflowers, with Love and Hate

I remember vividly the first time I saw a sunflower. It was during a family holiday in my childhood, in the middle of a hangry evening walk to a crêperie in the dullest part of rural France. We rounded a corner, and there it was, blazing against a bright blue sky, with uncountable numbers of siblings: big, comforting golden petals, head like a dinner plate, all modestly looking down: the Princess Diana of oil-producing agronomy. Who could not be charmed by such a look of shy self-protection? I, too, hated the sun, had too many sisters (one). The sunflower seemed almost human, just like me.

On closer acquaintance, sunflowers came to seem lovelier still. Unlike other, fancier-sounding plants—lady’s mantle, love-lies-bleeding, guelder rose—the sunflower, without apparent effort, conjures up a world of warmth and light with two and a half simple syllables. And its face is, in a mathematical sense, perfect. I only dimly understand the golden ratio, but I know that the sunflower exhibits it: the spiral symmetry of its seeds is reminiscent of a human fingerprint and follows the Fibonacci sequence, with each seed set at an angle from its neighbor, to allow for maximum seed quantity. Its patterns are also reassuringly consistent: from the heat of Tuscany to humid central Ukraine, the sunflower usually has fifty-five, eighty-nine, or a hundred and forty-four petals. Which other human-height flower can claim that?

That sunny yellow is the embodiment of cheerfulness, but, unlike its closest happy-plant rival, the gerbera daisy, it isn’t cursed with Volkswagen Beetle overbranding or with that terrible range of sugar-colors (tartrazine orange, Nerds scarlet, Pepto Bismol pink). Maybe that’s why the sunflower is such a familiar sight; what flower is as easily recognized? It is the face we all remember, the archetype of a flower. Any young child, however ungifted, can manage its portrait: sturdy stalk, round middle, yellow scribble round the edge—voilà, it’s done. My school emblem was a sunflower, embossed in velvety abstract on our sweatshirts; even now I’ll buy a bunch for an old schoolmate, for some hilarious light triggering.

Other plants loll around, good for nothing except a couple weeks of decorativeness. The sunflower has always been so hardworking, so uncomplaining. Pollinators love them; bees can shelter in their dried-out hollow stems; even their petals can be eaten. Soppier plants die at the first sign of chill, but sunflowers can last into fall…

Read the whole essay here.

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