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Lessons from a Sunflower

Updated: Oct 8, 2021

There are few things more cheery than a bright yellow Sunflower in your garden & ours are finally starting to bloom. As an artist, I can not talk about sunflowers without reference to Vincent Van Gogh.

His famous ‘Sunflowers’, painted in 1888, were painted during a rare period of excited optimism in his life. He had moved to Arles, France, to live with his mentor & friend, Paul Gauguin. Though originally made for Gauguin, Van Gogh later took the sunflower as his own personal artistic signature, writing to his brother Theo, “the sunflower is mine”. These sunflowers make another appearance where Paul painted Vincent at work in the studio entitled, “The Painter of Sunflowers”.

Yellow was a symbol of happiness to Van Gogh & in Dutch literature, the sunflower was a symbol of devotion & loyalty. His sunflower paintings use a range of techniques, from tiny pointillist dots to thick sculptural strokes. In some versions of this painting, the sunflowers were placed in front of an opposing color background, while the later versions were completely yellow & the entire thing seemed to radiate light (there are 12 in this series). Van Gogh used color in all his art to express emotion, what not a better subject than the sunflower.

Fun Facts:

1. They're native to the Americas - like potatoes, tomatoes, and corn, sunflowers were cultivated in North America as far back as 3000 B.C. They were originally developed for food, medicine, dye, and oil. Later, they were exported to the rest of the world by Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s.

2. They were brought to Russia by royalty - Peter the Great (1682-1725) was so fascinated by the sunflowers he saw in the Netherlands that he took some back to Russia. They became popular when people discovered that sunflower seed oil was not banned during Lent. By the early 19th century, the country was planting millions of acres of sunflowers every year.

3. They track the sun - Sunflowers display a behavior called heliotropism. The young blossoms will face east in the morning and follow the sun as the earth moves during the day. As the flowers get heavier during seed production, the stems will stiffen and the mature flower heads will generally remain facing east.

4. The world's tallest sunflower - in the summer of 2014, it reached 30 Feet, 1 Inch by Hans-Peter Schiffer who toppled the Guinness World Record for the third year in a row. While we're on the subject of big numbers.. each sunflower can contain 1,000-2,000 seeds.

5. They are healing - in Mexico, the flowers were thought to soothe chest pain. A number of tribes agreed with the plant's curing properties. The Cherokee & the Dakota utilized an infusion of sunflower leaves to treat pain. Fast forward to 2011, sunflowers were planted after the devastating tsunami destroyed reactors in the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan and because of Phytoremediation (use of plants to clear toxins from the environment), they store most of their biomass in leaves and stems so the radioactive material absorbed by the plants can be disposed of without having to dig up roots.


“Flowers have an expression like the plain, honest and upright, broad-faced sunflower” -Henry Ward Beecher

“The sunflower is my favorite flower. Not because it looks like the sun but because it follows the sun. During the course of the day, the head tracks the journey of the sun across the sky. Wherever light is, no matter how weak, these flowers will find it. That is such an admirable thing” –Tim Firth

“Facing the sun is a choice a sunflower makes every single day” –Indhumathi Nagarajan

“A sunflower field is like a sky with a thousand suns” –Corina Abdulahm-Negura

“Turn your face to the sun and the shadows follow behind you” –A Maori Proverb

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