“Turn your face to the sun and the shadows follow behind you.”

Turn your face to the sun and the shadows follow behind you … I am told is an old Maori proverb.

Today I want to talk about Sunflowers. Native American people – the Aztecs, the Otomi and the Incas would use sunflowers to represent their Sun deity.The first record we find of this flowering plant is dated  2600 BC in Mesoamerica, in present day Mexico. The earliest known sunflower grown north of Mexico can be dated back to 2300 BC in Tennessee. It traveled to Europe with the Spanish conquerors of South America in the early 16th century. It is even said the Spaniards, in their zeal to convert the Natives to Christianity, tried to suppress the cultivation of sunflowers as they disapproved  of its association with native Indian worship and warfare.

Nevertheless, the sunflower and its seeds reached European shores with the victorious Spanish galleons. In the 18th century the sunflower seed’s oil became a favoured cooking oil, especially in the Russian Orthodox Church, during the six weeks of Lent leading up to Easter.

The sunflower on  its sturdy stem, sitting in a vase, brings a splash of sunshine  to many a home around the world. The flower fascinates us. Much as it did Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch Impressionist painter, who obsessed about them until his death in 1890. He painted many sunflowers including the one shown below:

Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers.
By Vincent Van Gogh.
Painting, Oil on Canvas
Arles, France: August, 1888

In fact the sunflowers have almost become synonymous with Van Gogh’s name and his technique. The colours are vibrant – bright yellows for the flower in full bloom and arid browns to depict the wilting or dead flowers. Life and Death are bunched together in Van Gogh’s painting mimicking the spectrum of life of all living things and how one is inseparable  from the other. The painting also reflects the diversity of life.

Van Gogh painted different varieties of sunflowers. What is called the sun”flower” is really a flower head consisting of lots of florets crowded together. The outer, petal-bearing florets are the bright yellow, showy but quite sterile ray florets; inside the circular head are the tube-like disc florets that mature into seeds.

Van Gogh’s 1888 painting shows some sunflowers that lack the broad dark centre characteristic of sunflowers and instead show mainly golden petals. This was not an artistic license taken by the painter but  a faithful reproduction of a mutant variety of sunflower called the “teddy bear”  (shown on left). Researchers these days have developed their own sunflower obsession – trying to solve the genetic origin of mutant “teddy bear” sunflowers depicted in Van Gogh’s ochre-splashed canvases.

Researchers have identified the gene responsible for the ‘double-flowered’ (B) variations (black arrows in main picture) captured in Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 painting Sunflowers. A normal sunflower (A) and another mutation with ‘tubular’ florets (C) are shown for comparison.
John Burke/UGA;Christie's Images/CORBIS

The flower petals within the sunflower’s cluster are usually in a a spiral pattern where each floret is turned towards the next by approximately the golden angle, 137.5°, producing a pattern of interconnecting spirals. On an average sized sunflower there would be 34 spirals in one direction and 55 in the other. This pattern produces the most efficient packing of seeds within the flower head.

Is it any wonder the plant biologist John Burke at the University of Georgia says, “ it’s the largest and most successful flowering plant family on Earth” ?

Helmut Vogel  in “A better way to construct the sunflower head” (1979) created a mathematical model to describe the intricate interconnecting spirals of a sunflower head.  For the extreme math geeks amongst you, here is how Vogel expressed it in polar coordinates:

r = c \sqrt{n},
\theta = n \times 137.5^{\circ},
 where θ is the angle, r is the radius or distance from the center, and n is the index number of the floret and c is a constant scaling factor. This model has been used to produce computer graphics representations of sunflowers.
Researchers, painters, mathematicians … have been fascinated, humbled or seduced by the simple beauty of the sunflower. We have all been bewitched by the young sunflower’s ability to turn its face a full 180 degrees to face the sun all day long. This ability by young sunflowers to “track” the sun is called  heliotropism.
Perhaps, heliotropism is something we all need to practice. To turn our backs on life’s dark and sinister shadows and try to look for the brighter side,  keeping our focus on a brighter future.
Who knew a little sunflower could be such an inspiration to us!
This summer I will plant some sunflowers in my garden and worship its simple truth and beauty like the early and wise native Americans.

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