The power of plants never ceases to amaze me. I have sunflowers growing in the cutting beds which are already over 2m/6′ tall, and the solstice is barely behind us. As the annuus indicates, sunflowers are an annual, and each one has grown from the familiar seed, encased in its smart black or black and white jacket. Mine are, as yet, just infants, although they are flowering well. Sunflowers will more typically reach 3m/10′ and Guinness World Record is held by a specimen which reached an improbable 9.17m/31.1′ tall. I have cut a selection as pictured below. It is not my first attempt to recreate a famous series of pictures, but I find the flowers difficult to position in the vase to create the right effect. Perhaps this is the advantage of painting, that real-world flowers can be positioned on canvas in an ideal distribution. Van Gogh considered yellow to be the colour of happiness, allegedly. I enjoy the classic yellow sunflowers – they are joyful indeed, but I find the fiery oranges and reds thrilling, especially so early in the year. They are proving useful as a cut flower too as once the flower at the apex is removed as many as six secondary flowers are developing lower down. These are smaller and less dramatic than the primary flower, but more amenable to being placed in a vase.
Sunflowers were an early domestication around 5000 years ago in what we now call the southern United States or Mexico, where all but three of the species are native. The early European settlers recognised its value immediately and seed was in Europe by the sixteenth century. Its value was always aesthetic as well as comestible. Although Van Gogh is most famously associated with the sunflower, Van Dyck painted a self-portrait with sunflowers larger than his own head in 1633AD. Louis XIV pressed it into service, somewhat inevitably. At Versailles, down each side of the Tapis Vert, there are urns of extraordinary size set on pedestals. Some are carved with tournesols. The work is exquisite. The cut of the line is so clean that they could be fresh from the stonemason’s yard. They are one of the highlights of a walk around the garden there. Was Louis happy with the superficial association of the flower and the sun, or was he trading on the reputed heliotropism, that the flower follows the sun during the course of the day? I suspect both.
In truth, only the immature flower bud tracks the sun, something it does even on a cloudy day. The mature inflorescence is almost always fixed facing east. This means that the flower head warms quickly and early in the day, when pollinating insects are still active in hot climates. It also ensures the best ripening conditions for the tightly packed, indeed, perfectly packed, seeds which follow pollination. The flowers of the central disc are arranged in interpenetrating left and right spirals which conform to the Fibonacci series of numbers. It is the most efficient arrangement in space possible.