For me, one of the saddest sights heralding the end of summer is when my sunflowers droop their heads and prepare for death. The helianthus, to give it its Latin name, embraces life in five rapid stages; - germination, growth, flowering, seed development and death. So do most plants but it's the speed at which this happens that fascinates me.
One minute you’re planting the tiny seed, then you turn round and your sunflower is six feet tall, its flattened brown face trimmed with glorious yellow petals, turning towards the sun to gobble up as much light and heat as possible. Its short blooming period is followed by the ripening of the seed over about a month, followed by the end of its life cycle.
To me it seems the whole process is over in about two months, long before the petunias, geraniums and pansies lose their lustre. I am sure the gardeners out there will debate my superficial explanation and time lines but you get the idea.
Sunflowers, as we know, were made famous by the nineteenth century Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh who painted versions of them in vases, from full bloom to withering. Sunflowers were not solely the inspiration for artists. Chinese symbolism links the sunflower to good luck and vitality. Religious meaning ties them to a spiritual knowing and a search for the light. In astrology, sunflowers are connected to the sign of Leo which is ruled by the sun. My favourite bit of symbolism is that of Clytie, a water nymph in Greek mythology. When she lost the love of her life, Apollo, she turned into a sunflower.
Why should I be so bothered about the life cycle of the sunflower? To me it’s like a film on fast forward of our own life cycle. Rapid growth, reaching a climax point which can be different for all of us although many say it’s around the midlife point of forty then we begin the slow decline towards physical death.
The sunflower can represent those people who charge towards success as if there’s no tomorrow. Growing tall, above the rest, reaching out for the good things only to find they burn themselves out too early. It’s exhausting having to be bigger, brasher, and bolder than the others all the time. It’s like the bragging on social media. Isn’t it best to pace yourself and not reach too high too quickly?
The sunflower is greedy for the light because that’s what she needs go through her lifecycle but there’s a lot of merit in keeping below the radar sometimes and hibernating in a dark place (think duvet days) to let the process of maturity occur naturally. Nature works best when she does things in her own time.
I’m more like a snowdrop. First up. Can't wait to get going. Small but hardy. I get my head down to get through bad times and battle through all weather and I keep popping back up! What sort of flower would you be?
I’ll leave you with a verse of a lovely poem by William Blake.
Ah Sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun;
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller's journey is done;