The giant sunflowers are the matriarchs of my garden for sure. And I daresay, they are an archetype of a flower’s journey for the entire flowering world because they are so very BIG. Bigger than life, so strong and bold and prolific, bringing joy and beauty and food, to us, to the birds, insects, and all the living world, and I imagine they feed our ancestors as well.
I have grown big, gigantic sunflowers the past two years in my newly fenced garden – the ones that grow 8 to 10 feet tall. They take a bit of nurturing to get started. I germinate the seedlings inside the house, so the birds don’t eat the freshly sprouted seed and then plant them in the fenced garden away from the deer. After that, they take off like a rocket and are such a wonder to watch, growing so tall and strong.
Pictures of sunflowers are almost always of when they are first in bloom, with their maiden heads held high to the morning sun, radiant against a clear blue sky, towering over us. There is so much strength and beauty, bold passion, and naked joy in their huge faces as they meet the day, ready to welcome their beloveds with their sweet nectar. In this stage of their life, they are like a Greek god or goddess in their radiant glory with a perfectly sculpted blemish free body. A quick google search for sunflower images shows 98% of them are in this “smiling faces” stage.
But the initial glory only lasts a few days and then the long ripening of her seed begins and as they swell, the weight of her face-turned-womb pulls her over towards the ground. I love this part of her journey the most. Now she is showing her true power, generating everything she has into ripening her seeds. The strength of the stalk and the back of her seed head support the swelling seed, while the dried yellow petals hang their long locks down from her face, looking like freshly washed, if no longer vibrant, hair. The sunflower might be said to look sad at this stage, but what she is really doing is bearing the weight of all that she is birthing, her heavy womb ripe with seeds bowing reverently to the sacred ground that feeds her.
When her seeds are fully ripened, she steps into her crowning glory as the wise elder storing her wisdom in her finished seed until it is needed and then she freely gives it back – as food for the birds and animals, as seed for new plants, as food for the earthworms and mycelium and the dirt. Now she can surrender the last of her life force, her head turning drab and spotted, as the last of her large green leaves yellow and then turn brown and withered. And she waits. For the cold to take her and subsume her, and for the winter soil to incubate her seed.
The sunflower’s sorrow is not that she turns brown and dies. The heartbreak is when we only value her beautiful golden face in the sun and shun the rest of her days. When we don’t value her elder-ness, we negate her entire life’s purpose as it comes to its full fruition. Our culture teaches us to equate the dying sunflower with growing old, with the coming of winter, and with being sad. That is the deeper sorrow, when we put so much energy into resisting these natural cycles of life. We are taught to always strive to be happy and being happy so often requires moving forward with new growth and sunny days, all in a linear progression onward. We are taught to resist the dying, in nature, and in ourselves; to fight it at all costs. But Nature is not like that. Life is cyclical with birth, death, and rebirth and all the myriad of feelings that brings. And that can be SO hard. The sunflower knows that her seed will bring new life the next spring and she knows that she will return to the earth and feed that new life, and that is as it should be.
We miss so much when we only value new growth and warm sunny days. The waning days of autumn and the cold incubation days of winter have their own beauty and are all part of the sunflowers journey. Without them we can’t have her new flowers in the spring. When I resist the waning days of autumn, I only give them power to magnify any feelings of loss and fear I might have of the coming winter. When I resist a feeling of sadness, it looms over me and clings to me. What happens if I let go of controlling it and just allow it to be? To even welcome it?
Resistance to less than joyful feelings is natural, and even often protective, but perhaps sometimes this resistance to what we think we don’t want, don’t want to be, or won’t allow, just magnifies the sorrow. This resistance can rob us of our ability to find the joy and love and purpose right in front of us and create unnecessary agony. In the garden.