by | Sep 26, 2020 | Native Plants, People

Sunflower illustration in black and white


Sunflowers are resilient and versatile plants. They grow along highways, in deserts and in poor soils — needing only a few resources provided by nature, including warmth, sunlight and water. They are rumored to look for and follow the sun wherever it goes.

After living with my adoptive family for a decade, I met and moved in with my biological mother. One of the first things she shared with me was her love for flowers and plants. Her garden was protected by a sloped hill overlooking the house, with a glorious patch of Sunzillas* facing her country home in Alpine, California.

When she brought me there for the first time, it was early summer. I was amazed. Never had I seen such a sight: The sunflowers stood tall and proud on the hill, facing the sun with allegiance in what appeared to be an intense, reciprocal relationship. Though it’s a myth that mature sunflowers are phototropic**, it appeared to my young eyes as if the big, gold flower heads looked up at the sun as it rose in the east and chased its disappearing light over a ridge to the west. Like my siblings and I, the flowers seemed to soak up every ray the sun had to offer while it stared back at them, enamored.

Watching for sprouts in early spring helped us know the final frost had cleared. Each year, it was invigorating to look for the Sunzillas; we’d eagerly wait for their erect stems to appear atop the hill and for hearty buds to burst into strong, cheerful blooms. The flowers’ annual return brought life (literally and figuratively) into our family.

On rare rainy days, they were perhaps even more special to behold. With less sunlight to hypothetically guide their path, the flowers seemed to turn toward each other and share their energy — a reminder from nature to seek light from one another when dark clouds block the sun from view.

After three years of warmth, nourishment and light, the storm of my mother’s substance abuse surfaced once again. My siblings and I, ranging from ages 5 to 14 at the time, often turned to each other for comfort during this time. Summer quickly gave way to fall, leaving parched terrain and exhausted resources. We too felt as if our nourishing life cycle was coming to a close. By Thanksgiving, the first frost had arrived, and the sunflowers began eroding, one by one losing their petals and seeds. It looked like a warzone up on sunflower hill, resembling how we all felt inside.

With the turn of the season, I felt it was time for me to go. It had become clear that, like that year’s patch of sunflowers, I could not grow in this place any longer.

I had to start over and replant myself several times. First I went back to my adoptive parents, then to a distant relative, until settling down in my final years of high school with relatives of my biological father. Each time I moved, I had to start over: rooting, growing, feeling loved and nurtured, until the situation was no longer tenable for reasons beyond my control. It wasn’t until very recently, as an adult and mother myself, that I finally felt supported by the elements around me in a place that could truly cultivate my growth — planted, so to speak.

Common sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), like many sunflowers species, are annual plants, expiring after they flower. As a young woman, I learned to embrace all aspects of their life cycle and crave each next phase, even the period when the flower heads decompose, loosing their seeds onto the soil to start the process all over again. Their setting of seed felt, to me, like setting the stage for what the future could bring.

In the face of each new season that forced my personal growth, I have relied on my own roots growing strong, emboldening me as they create a new form, push forth new leaves, and, eventually, bloom with new petals to look for and find the sun.

*A giant, tall-growing, cultivated variety of common sunflower (Helianthus annuus).
**Developing sunflower buds and leaves may exhibit some phototropism.

Michael Robin Manning is a trauma survivor, mother of two and executive at a startup in Austin, Texas. A transplant from San Diego, California, she focuses her healing into helping empower others through creative essays and public speaking.