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