Friday, July 5, 2013

Isaac and the Sunflowers--Part 2

Roadside Kansas Sunflower
Having shared the information about commercially grown sunflowers and their history in last week's blog, I must admit the fact that most farmers, like Isaac, regard the common sunflower as a weed.  Although the sunflower is the state flower of Kansas, and visitors admire the golden blossoms growing along roadsides, the plants are a nuisance in corn, wheat, and soybean fields, having the potential to reduce crop yields.
Since its introduction to the Old World, the popularity of the sunflower has spread.  Germans make a popular bread called Sonnenblumenkernbrot (literally, sunflower whole seed bread) by combining the seeds with rye flour.  During the 18th century the popularity of sunflower oil expanded in Russia because it was one of the few oils allowed by the Russian Orthodox Church during Lent.  Using data compiled by Monfreda, C.N. Ramankutty, and J.A. Foley from 2000 production figures, the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment compiled the map below showing how far the production of sunflowers has spread across the world, far beyond its native American roots.  Indicative of its popularity and importance, the sunflower is the national flower of Ukraine.
The sunflower is a popular symbol.  In the late 1800s, during Isaac's lifetime, the sunflower was used as the symbol of the Aesthetic Movement.  Artists and writers of the Aesthetic style believed that art should be appreciated for itself, without any association with morality, sentimentality, or usefulness.  The purpose of art was beauty, not utility.  Perhaps the best known among its practitioners are Oscar Wilde, A.C. Swinburne, James McNeill Whistler, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  When Oscar Wilde made his American tour during Isaac's lifetime, he was often lampooned by cartoonists who drew Wilde wearing a sunflower as a boutonniere or carry a sunflower as a bouquet.
The flower is also a common symbol for green ideology, as well as for the Vegan Society.  It was chosen as the symbol of the Spiritualist Church because "Spiritualism turns toward the light of truth" and the sunflower turns toward the sun.  Spiritualism has its origins in the mid-1800s and while the societies and churches vary in their practices and beliefs, in general they are described as believing that when humans die it is the physical life that ends, but the personality or mind survives on a spirit plane.  Mediumship is the method through which spiritualists seek to reach these spirits.  As for their choice of the sunflower as their symbol because it follows the sun, science offers a less spiritual explanation.
Worldwide sunflower production


Scientists have concluded that the alignment of sunflowers is the result of heliotropism, and their movement is a circadian rhythm, synchronized by the sun.  Tests have shown that turning the sunflower 180 degrees will cause it to turn away from the sun until resynchronization by the sun over the period of a few days realigns the movement.  Whether one accepts the Spiritual or the Scientific explanation, seeing a large field of sunflowers identically aligned to face the sun is an awesome sight. 
One summer we had three urban, non-farming couples visiting our farm, and we hosted a supper on the lawn, inviting several of our farming neighbors.  As I worked that afternoon getting things ready for the meal, my city guests asked if I had containers they could use for wild flower bouquets for the table.  I gathered some interesting antique containers to use as vases, and they went in search of wild flowers.  That evening the tables looked lovely with the old dishes and tins holding the charmingly arranged flowers.  As the meal concluded and we lingered around the long table to visit, one of the farmers leaned back in his chair and studied the floral arrangements.  "You know, those weeds are kinda pretty," he said.
I cannot help but wonder if one evening after chopping sandburs and sunflowers with his hoe in the hot prairie sun all afternoon, Isaac didn't reach down and pick up a few of the slaughtered blossoms to take back to his house and put in a vase to decorate his kitchen table that evening.


The Blog Fodder said...

Very interesting and informative. Great post.
One man's weed is another's flower (One man's Mede is another's Persian). We certainly go through the sunflower oil in cooking (Tanya says canola oil "tastes like diesel fuel") and there are acres and acres of them around us, just hardly any as decorative flowers by houses.

Grace Grits and Gardening said...

There are some beautiful sunflower fields in Texas right now too! Great post.

Charla said...