We enjoyed our collaboration about datura so much, Nan De Grove and I thought we’d do it again with sunflowers. Nan lives in the country on the plains, where wild sunflowers thrive and where, with little shade, she can cultivate the most marvelous Russian Mammoths imaginable. And they bring masses of American goldfinches to her garden.
The American goldfinches rarely visit my garden, but each year we host Arkansas goldfinches, who come to our feeder — a white “sock” full of thistle seed, that we’ve found to be the most successful in attracting them. (Ornithologists have renamed the Arkansas, now calling it the Lesser Goldfinch, but we so dislike that “classification,” my husband calls them Blackbacks.)
I have too much shade to accommodate sunflowers. They much prefer my neighbor Phyllis’s box-garden in the full-out light and heat of the alley.
The Greek god Apollo, twin brother of the goddess Artemis, was in some quarters considered the Sun god (there was also Helios). Additionally, Apollo was the god of sheep, wolves, music, as well as an oracular deity and patron of Delphi along with Dionysus (who had the job in winter). And he presided over the Muses, goddesses — sometimes three, sometimes nine, sometimes twelve — of wisdom, song, and the other arts. To some scholars, boyish Apollo’s leadership of the all-female Muses seems out of place.
The other morning, as I was reading about Apollo and the Muses, I looked up at my one sunflower, and realized that if the Muses are nocturnal — as some mythographers describe them and the processes of artmaking — then maybe Apollo’s role, essential as a radiant diurnal god — a Sun god — was to bring to light the arts that are made in the dark, that is, in solitude and contemplation.
And then I laughed. My mother had always thought sunflowers were “trashy,” not the kind of thing to be grown in an elegant, well-kept garden. But I — who love them and the birds they attract — had just been provided with a happy epiphany by the glorious Helianthus annuus bobbing over my head.
Sunflower could be the country cousin of elegant Rose, blooming with abandon in open fields, highway medians, and vacant lots, thriving in poor soil or even rocks. The flowers appear in abundance in the astrological month of Leo, the sign ruled by the Sun. The shape of the sunflower is like the Sun itself with its radiant petals arrayed like sunbeams, and its fiery colors ranging from golden yellow to deep russet and orange. In French it is called tournesol for its heliotropic habit of turning its face toward the Sun as it moves from east to west. In Greek myth it is associated with Apollo, the Sun god. In some stories, a nymph who pined for Apollo could not stop gazing at the Sun, and was turned into a flower.
In the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, painted by Pamela Coleman Smith, sunflowers appear in the walled garden of the Sun card, symbols of the Sun’s blessing and spiritual grace.
The sunflower is generally evocative of optimism and lightheartedness, but the great mystical poet and artist William Blake imagined it differently, perhaps as a metaphor for the soul’s journey through the world and longing for paradise.