There is something magical about sunflowers – it seems impossible not to experience delight at the sight of a field of tall, bold, radiant blooms. Beloved subject of artists and Instagramers, symbol of happiness, hope and resistance. A few weeks back we had a sunflower field adventure just outside of Toowoomba. Warraba sunflowers at Cambooya had an open field day, for a small fee you could access the fields and pick as many sunflowers as you could carry. It was a way for them to make some cash from a crop that was flowering erratically due to the heavy rains.
You know what is better than a bunch of beautiful vibrant sunflowers in a vase? It is a bunch that you picked yourself after walking across a field of rich, black, basaltic clay to the overwhelming beauty of exuberant flowers, all that green and vibrant yellow, bursting forth from that rich, black earth. Hard not to feel intensely alive in that environment. Giant golden heads, heavy with seed, bursting with the promise of sustenance and life. Even the spent flowers with their weighty seed heads were beautiful. In a way, the uneven timing of the flowering was a gift, a chance to experience sunflowers in all the magnificent stages of existence. That cycle of life was something that drew VanGogh to the flower, hard not to think of Vincent in the presence of sunflowers: “You know the peony is Jeannin’s, the hollyhock belongs to Quost, but the sunflower is somewhat my own.” – Van Gogh in a letter to Theo January 1889.
The sunflower has long been an emblem of happiness and hope in the face of despair, with its association with the depressive Vincent Van Gogh. Found myself thinking of that great episode of Dr Who, my favourite episode really, Vincent and the Doctor, where after seeing something incongruous in Vincent’s painting of the Church at Auvers. The Doctor and Amy travel back to meet Vincent and investigate. In a moment of gratitude Amy presents Vincent with a yard full of sunflowers. In the Richard Curtis script, Vincent responds with: “No, it’s not that I don’t like them. I find them complex. Always somewhere between living and dying. Half-human as they turn to the sun.” I think it is that line about always being between “living and dying” that so beautifully captures Vincent’s sunflower paintings. There is very much an element of memento mori in those paintings. They celebrate vibrant life but the inevitable conclusion of life is always present in the dropping blooms transforming into heavy seed heads. Sunflowers themselves seem a kind of summation of life; stalks pushing sky wards, strong, succulent, thrusting and turning towards the sun, then a sparkling existence in the sunshine, followed by a fecund maturity, petals dropping and heads bowing under the weight of heavy seed heads, bowing towards their final chapter. The whole cycle of life so poetically captured in that one plant and it’s brief existence.
That day in the field it was not just the plants, the flowers, that filled me with a joyous sense of life but all the life that was going on in that forest of sunflowers; the small flying, ant like insects, delicate, small spiders weaving flimsy webs amongst the flowers and weeds, and the bees. So many, happy, pollen laden, buzzing bees. On the surface you have that symphony of colour, the green and the vibrant yellow, when you look closer there is a whole other world of life in there. From the black soil to the bright blue sky the whole experience is a crescendo of life. No wonder Vincent made the sunflower his own.
There is also something humbling about standing amongst a forest of giant sunflowers, where most of the plants are as tall or taller than you are. It offers one of those precious moments of wonder and beauty. A still point in the turning world.
Recently the sunflower has taken on a deeper significance as a symbol of resistance. Twelve months ago I didn’t even know that the sunflower was the national flower of Ukraine, now I doubt I will ever forget that piece of information.
Ever since a woman in invaded Ukraine, meet the invaders with sunflower seeds and urged them to keep them in their pockets, so when they died on Ukrainian soil, at least sunflowers would bloom where they fell, the flower has become an evocative symbol of courage in the face of staggering military oppression. Who walks up to armed men, challenges their right to be on your land with nothing in your hand but sunflower seeds? That courage is staggering.
In 1996 sunflowers were used as a symbol of peace in the Ukraine, when the surrendering of Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal was commemorated by the defence ministers of Ukraine, Russia and the United States by planting sunflower seeds at the Pervomaysk missile base in Southern Ukraine.
Now every time I see a sunflower I can’t help but think of Ukraine. It used to be that a field of sunflowers would immediately evoke thoughts of Van Gogh, that great virtuoso of emotion, nature and colour, now sunflowers make think of a different suffering and bravery. The sunflower unites us with the Ukrainian people, with the passion of Van Gogh, with a love of nature. It is a source of joy and inspiration.
We are lucky here on the downs Sunflowers are a summer feature in our region, the highway between Toowoomba and Warwick is known as the sunflower route, especially the area around Allora so if you are thinking of visiting the region in the summer time it is worth taking your time and enjoying the golden scenery. Karen over at Living on the Downs wrote a wonderful post about the sunflower trail last year check it out here: https://livingonthedowns.wordpress.com/2021/01/22/the-sunflower-trail/