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Past Issues Of Wildflower Magazine

Wildflower is published quarterly by the Wildflower Center. Its content is national in scope with articles about the conservation and use of native plants as well as news from the Wildflower Center. A subscription is provided to Wildflower Center members as a benefit of membership.

Here Comes The Sun by Lisa Halvorsen - Fall 2004

Where Camille lived, the sunflowers grew so high
they looked like real suns - a whole field of burning suns.

And so begins the tale of a little French boy named Camille who befriends a poor artist with a yellow beard and quick brown eyes who has traveled to the south of France to paint. In this story, the man paints Camille and his family, as well as the things he sees around him, including the bright, cheery sunflowers. Camille calls him the Sunflower Man.

This children's picture book, Camille and the Sunflowers by Laurence Anholt, is based on the true story of Vincent van Gogh, who moved to Arles in the late 1800s to paint. Sadly, van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime, and out of desperation, or perhaps madness, took his own life at a young age. Little did he know that his works, especially the sunflower pictures that he painted in the French countryside, would someday be worth millions.

Today his sunflower series is being immortalized further through the work of Canadian artist Cameron Cross. He has begun a quest to paint a different van Gogh sunflower reproduction in seven countries around the globe, displaying each in an area with either a connection to agronomic sunflowers or to the painter. What's so unusual about these masterpieces is that each painting is more than 30 feet tall and rests on a gigantic 80-foot easel, making it visible from miles away.  

Cross painted the first one in 1998 in his home province of Manitoba for the town of Altona, the Sunflower Capital of Canada. His second "van Gogh" is on display in Emerald, Australia. For his third location he chose Goodland, Kansas, a hub for High Plains sunflower production and processing, located in the western part of the Sunflower State. 

The Sunflower Legacy
Even without all this unusual attention, sunflowers, members of the Asteraceae (aster) family, wouldn't need much introduction. They are among the most easily recognizable plants and are found in all 50 states, as well as on just about every continent. 
"One of the greatest misconceptions when looking at a sunflower is to think that you are looking at a single flower," says Dr. Damon Waitt, senior botanist at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. "Technically, it's not even a flower but a head, made up of two types of flowers - disk and ray - that combine to look like a single flower. The center of the head has dozens of tiny individual disk flowers, whereas the periphery of the head consists of ray flowers that have a petal-like appearance and are usually yellow or gold."

The Latin name for sunflower is Helianthus, helios meaning "sun" and antho for "flower."  Although most people think all sunflowers resemble the common sunflower (Helianthus annuus), a tall, showy flower with a dark-brown center and golden rays, not all 70 species in this genus look the same. The Maximilian sunflower (H. maximiliani), for example, is a 3- to 10-foot-tall plant with bright golden-yellow 4-inch flowers in elongated clusters. Other species may have rust, maroon, or orange ray flowers and yellow or green disk flowers instead of brown.

Three sunflower species currently are listed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's endangered and threatened species list. Eggert's sunflower (H. eggertii), found in Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee, is threatened in its entire range, as is Pecos sunflower (H. paradoxus), which grows only in Texas and New Mexico. Schweinitz sunflower (H. schweinitzii), native to North and South Carolina, has been on the agency's endangered list since 1991.

Sunflowers thrive when grown in well-drained, fertile soil in full sun. Young seedlings will tolerate light frost, allowing gardeners in colder climates to plant before the average last frost date for their area. Although generally a no-fuss crop, taller varieties need to be thinned to 2 to 2-1/2 feet apart and may require staking to prevent damage to the stalk and head. 

The Spanish word for sunflower is girasol, and the French is tournesol, which literally translates as "to turn with the sun," an apt description for the sunflower's habit of turning its face toward the morning sun.

The largest sunflower head on record was grown in British Columbia, Canada, in 1983 and measured 32-1/4 inches at its widest point. The tallest on record is said to be 25 feet, 5 inches. Scientists widely believe that the genus Helianthus originated in North America, citing the discovery of seed caches dating to around 3000 B.C.E. in the Four Corners area of the southwestern United States. Evidence also suggests that the early Incas in Peru revered the sunflower, casting its image in pure gold to adorn their temples of the sun and crowning their priestesses with sunflower crowns.

The complete article is available within the Fall 2004 issue of Native Plants magazine - click here to subscribe.

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