The Sunflower’s Journey

A six-part story honoring the Sunflower’s journey through birth, death, and rebirth.

Part One: Glory in the Garden

Watching the blue jays stuff their throat pouch with the seeds from the weighty bowed heads of the Sunflowers, I wonder how many will be dropped and become seed or food for others, or will he be meticulous enough to keep all of them for himself? With fall fading rapidly into winter, it is already hard to remember how tall and bright eyed these once towering Sunflowers were only a few months ago. In the hot summer sun, their larger-than-life matriarchal presence reigned in the garden. Now the brisk wind drains away the final remainder of the Sunflower’s life force that is not already stored tightly in their seeds. They have packed each one with everything they know and all the sunlight they were able to capture. Nothing held back, each small kernel carries all their hard-earned wisdom, their hopes and dreams. All else that they are will soon be gone, returning to the dirt from where they came.

Sunflower is unique in that they are both an incredibly beautiful flower and a major food crop, something no other flowering plant or angiosperm can claim. Their beauty has captured our hearts for centuries now. There is so much strength and beauty, bold passion, and naked joy in their huge faces. When their huge flowers first open, they are like a Greek god or goddess in their radiant glory with a perfectly sculpted, blemish-free body. Pictures we see of Sunflowers are almost always like this, with their maiden heads held high to the morning sun, radiant against a clear blue sky, towering over us. A quick google search for Sunflower images shows 98% of them are in this “smiling faces” stage.

But Sunflower’s initial glory as a beautiful flower only lasts a few days and then the long ripening of their seed begins. As their kernels swell, the weight of their face-turned-womb pulls them over towards the ground. Now they show their true power—making food—as they generate all their energy into ripening their seeds. The strength of their stalk and the back of their head supports their growing seed, while the dried yellow petals hang their long locks down from their face, looking like freshly washed, if no longer vibrant, hair. The Sunflower might be said to look sad at this stage, but what they are really doing is bearing the weight of all they are birthing. Their heavy womb, ripe with seeds, bows reverently to the sacred ground that feeds them, howling all that is birthing through them into their progeny.

They step into their crowning glory as a wise elder storing their wisdom until it is needed as food or to seed the next generation. And what a food they have become! Food for birds, for both wild and domesticated animals, for insects, earthworms, the dirt and the mycelium, as well as food for their own seed. But most of all they have dedicated themselves to being food for humans and the animals that feed us, having stepped into the world of domesticated partnership with us a few millennia ago.

The Sunflower must die for their seeds to mature. That is the nature of their annual life cycle and what they must do to reach their full fruition. It does not bring them heartbreak or sadness—they do not resist it, as we are taught to resist our own aging and dying. Rather, they give everything to it, to the ripening of their seed, knowing that what they ate from the sun and the soil feeds the next generations. In this way they continue to live—holding their life force in a sleeping seed until the conditions are ripe to grow again and start new life, fed by the compost of all those who came before.

Big Sunflower in the garden says: “I value the whole of your life, from beginning to end. All of it matters. My often-revered sun-filled face that follows the sun with such joy and power, is only the maiden beginning of my voyage. When my seeds swell with the life blood of the next generation and my face-turned-womb bows to the sacred ground, I am mother. Then I become elder and crone, relinquishing my enormous body back to the dirt of my ancestors, where my wisdom incubates in my seed and waits to be reborn. I am Matriarch, and I see the glory in who you are today and all days.”

But what does this Big Sunflower remember of their cousins, the Wild Sunflowers? What stories might they tell each other when their paths cross and they can share their adventures?

Part Two: How Sunflower’s Dance with Us Began

Sunflowers have not always been the tall, glorious matriarchs with huge flowers and weighty seedheads that we know today; both a prized show flower and the only major food crop that originated in North America.

Once they were a common wildflower among other wildflowers with branching stalks that were multi-headed, with much smaller flowers and small seeds. Both Wild Sunflower—often called Common Sunflower—and the domesticated Big Sunflower are of the species Helianthus annus. They are just different varieties. Wild Sunflower can be found growing freely today by the roadsides in the prairielands of North America and is often considered a weed. After millions of years of being a happy successful wildflower among other wildflowers, some of the Sunflowers began to change. They started becoming one of our human ancestor’s primary food sources in eastern North America around 5,000 years ago.

Why the Sunflower? Did it want to be domesticated? Did it offer itself to us, perhaps even lure us into partnership? Scientists are exploring this question. Most plants do not lend themselves easily to being manipulated for domestication and many refuse outright to cooperate with our human intentions. Did the ones that we succeeded domesticating for food willingly flock to the opportunity, encouraging in themselves the genetic improvements that serve our human needs so that we could also serve theirs?

Consider this story set 5,000 years ago about one day in the long process of the Sunflower’s domestication:

One day in late summer a young woman named Aiyana was out on her daily foraging route with her sisters and other women of their clan. They were picking seed heads, gathering nuts, and digging roots in the river valleys of the eastern tributaries of the big river known today as the Mississippi. Acorns were beginning to fall, along with the thin shelled nuts hickory nuts we now call pecans. It was the best time of the year for collecting the seeds into her gathering basket, as they began to ripen and before they were lost to scattering. It was a busy time, collecting the abundance that comes to them as the days grow shorter. But her usual seeds that she depended upon most were not growing well this year. The pigweed, what we now know as a cousin of amaranth, was sparse. So, she was looking more closely than usual for other seeds that might be useful and tasty in her beloved porridge. The grinding stones that they carefully carried each time they moved their camp had been a prized possession for generations. They made it so easy to grind the seeds into meal for their porridge. As a young girl she learned how to drop a red-hot rock into the water basket so that it would bring the water to a quick boil to cook and thicken the ground seeds. Knowing how satisfying this hot food was on the cold mornings to come fueled her search today.

The lovely yellow flowers caught her attention as a songbird flew away with one of its seeds in its mouth. It was a spindly plant with multiple stems ending in small seed heads. She knew this plant for the bright yellow flower petals it produced earlier in the season, but its seeds were generally quite few and small. However, this year there were so many of these flowers! This year they were calling to her. As she began collecting these small seeds in her basket, she noticed that a few were bigger than the others and she made a note to set them aside and talk to her mother about them.

Her mother was impressed with the amount of the yellow flower’s seed that she had gathered, and they worked together to grind the seed into meal that they were able to make some tasty flatbreads with and still have some left to add to their porridges. Her brother learned he liked to roast them and eat them. Her mother said that when she was a girl, they had used this seed for food quite a bit, but it had become less abundant, and she had not seen it gathered in several decades. She was impressed with the larger seeds that Aiyana had set aside, and they decided to save them to plant in a special spot next spring that she knew they would be returning to.

The dance of domestication bloomed into full swing, as people continued to select larger seeds and taller stalks, season after season. Along a journey (long in our view, or short in the flowers view) of another 1,000 or 2,000 years, this unremarkable flower gradually stepped more deeply into the lives of our ancestors.  

An interesting thing happens when plants are domesticated and there is even a term—domestication syndrome—to describe it. It’s a trade-off, a bartering even. In return for the wider dispersal and use of their seeds, the plants give up some of their independence, defenses and diversity. They step into a dependance on humans for their successful reproduction, and for their defenses. They typically grow larger seeds, thinner hulls, stronger stems, and lose their natural means of seed dispersal. Their seed has decreased dormancy and loses its self-incompatibility with their own pollen. It is as if they step into a co-evolution agreement with humans. In the time span of the long story of our planet, domestication is still a very new experiment with the long-term results still pending.

The amount of time that the Sunflower has been domesticated—only 5,000 years or a little more—is just one percent of the time they have evolved to thrive on our planet. This species—Helianthus annus—has been flowering and setting seed for 500,000 to 1,000,000 years. As a member of the Aster family, their ancestry is 45 million years old. Obviously, they were highly successful up until the time they met us. Why did they choose this new partnership? It is quite a different relationship than they had with all the insects and animals that had danced with them before. Will this new strategy with us work in the long run, or will it be a dead end at some point, while their wild cousins still thrive? Or perhaps something entirely new will evolve, with the Sunflowers helping to lead us forward as we continue to co-evolve together.

But first, how did one little seed manage to spread itself around the entire world?

Part Three: How the Sunflower Captured the Heart of the Whole World

Can you imagine our world today without Sunflowers? To gain a perspective of the odds they overcame to become quite famous worldwide, we must go back to the time before humans started farming. Before agriculture, our foraging ancestors used thousands of different plant species for food sources. There are many “forgotten crops” all over the world. In eastern North America, around 5,000 years ago, the Archaic people were domesticating not only Sunflowers, but sumpweed, maygrass, little barley, goosefoot, and likely others. This was before maize made its way north to their region. Sunflower is the only one of these ancient North American foraging crops that is still grown today, and really, that is only because of a fluke of history brought about by the Russian Orthodox Church.

After first being domesticated in eastern North America, Sunflower made their way to southwestern North America over the next thousand years, becoming a secondary food crop to maize. They kept spreading down through Mexico and South America, all the while being chosen either consciously or unconsciously by humans for larger and more numerous seeds. By the time Sunflower had made their way to the Aztecs, the single seed head and tall stalks to we know so well today had been selected for over thousands of generations. The Incas and Aztecs worshiped Sunflowers and believed that spirits of the dead were attracted to them because they reminded those spirits of the sun.

The invading Spanish then took Sunflowers back to Spain in 1510 where they were considered exotic and used only for ornamental use. In Europe they weren’t used for food and oil until the 1700’s, as evidenced by a patent in England for squeezing oil out of the seeds in 1716. Then famously, Peter the Great became enamored with the Sunflower when he visited Holland and brought them to Russia.

And here is the quirk of history. During Lent, the Russian Orthodox Church forbade the consumption of oil. But the oil of Sunflower was not on the prohibited list, and by the 1830’s Sunflower oil was manufactured in Russia on a large and highly lucrative commercial scale. Finally, now known for their quality oil, it was time for the Sunflower to make a jubilant return to their native soil, albeit vastly changed from their wild cousins that stayed on the prairie. The variety developed by the Russians—called Mammoth Russian—is still popular in seed catalogs today. When Sunflowers returned to North America they were soon cultivated on mass scale there as well and processed for their oil.  (See map)

The Sunflower, by stepping into partnership with us and allowing themselves to be domesticated, became bigger, stronger, taller and full of so much food and seed. Today they are grown in temperate regions all over the world and are the 12th largest food crop worldwide by some sources, largely grown for their oil. Quite an achievement from one perspective, as so few plants are grown for food today. Of the total estimated number of plant species in the world—around 400,000 to 500,000—only about 2,500 have undergone some degree of domestication for food and only 250 are considered fully domesticated, meaning that their full life cycle is dependent on human cultivation. And of those 250, only a dozen or so make up 90% of the world’s plant caloric intake. Quite a burden to bear!

Could the Wild Sunflower possibly have foreseen the rapid success of the path their descendants stepped onto—a path measured by the human understanding of a plant’s goal—that of spreading their seed as far and wide as possible? Would they have chosen this kind of accelerated prosperity if they could have foreseen where it would lead? What if the Sunflower considered prosperity in terms of expanded relationships rather than increased dominance and expansion?

When Sunflower stepped into the sphere of being a human food source, did they start the relationship or did we? What would a truly equal relationship with a plant ask differently of us?

Part Four: Who Domesticated Whom?

Wild Sunflower, who chose not to follow the in footpaths of their cousin, Big Sunflower, was hanging out with their family on the prairie one sunny afternoon, like they always have. Shaking their heads, they said to each other, “I just don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Why would Big Sunflower have wanted to start changing so quickly, adapting so fast that they had to give up so much? Life is easy, blowing with the wind and following the sun, letting the birds take our seeds where they will, knowing they can take care of themselves. This life has worked for our ancestors for so many millions of years. Whatever got into them to make such drastic changes?”

Some of the Sunflower family took a chance on a new way of being, a new relationship with us—and gave up much they had gained over the millions of years of their history. In exchange for a new and lucrative way to spread their seeds, they lost much of their ability to thrive on their own. It is interesting to think about why they were so willing to do this. Was it “just” for the greater dispersal of their seed? Or was there some nudge, some calling, a knowing of plant intelligence that they wanted or needed to partner with us and feed us? Did they feel like something larger was calling them? Did we woo each other, much like two lovers, not sure what they are getting into, but know they are meant to be together?

From The Atlantic Oct 1st, 2022, article: America’s Lost Crops Rewrite the History of Farming ,  Sarah Laskow says: “So many domesticated plants started out this way, as what we now derisively refer to as weeds. They showed up and showed up and showed up at the edges of human experience, until someone started interacting with them. Wild grasses would not have been so different from the wolves that hung around the edges of human campgrounds and over time evolved into dogs. Though we rarely give plants credit for such improvisation, some of the more flexible species could have found opportunity, too, in the disturbed ground of those campsite edges.”

It is an interesting question from the Sunflower’s perspective. Many plants resist domestication or simply have something in their genes that prevents desirable qualities (to humans) from being selected for. Is this just random Darwinian selection or is it a relationship choice? What if the plants themselves choose who they want to appeal to? Not in the linear, logical way that our human minds think and choose, but what if their life force energy is drawn to relationship with one being over another through some design of Mother Nature that we can’t quite fathom? What if choice and relationship has been the guiding principle of evolution all along?

As an example, the almond tree willingly and relatively easily gave up its bitterness gene and entered a partnership with us, while the acorn tree, whose bitterness humans have never been able to successfully select against, chose instead to keep their long-standing relationship with the deer and squirrels.

There are big questions here, that beg so many other questions, the least of which is not, “Are plants sentient?” (I explored this topic in more depth in this previous post.) We have for millennia now, looked at the world in a very anthropocentric way. But what if this is presumptuous at best? What if the plants, who have evolved for millions of years, compared to our few hundred thousand years, have a wisdom of knowing and communicating in the world, and on a timeline so vastly different than ours, that our senses don’t allow us to even be aware of what they know?

It is an interesting change of perspective to think of evolution as relationship, as life choosing more life. While it is true that “what eats, gets eaten,” and that “survival of the fittest” is surely a driving force of evolution, it doesn’t fully articulate the beauty and creativity of all the diversity of life on our planet. “Life choosing Life” feels like it adds a missing dimension of the life force energy that drives all beings to celebrate life, death, and rebirth in the ever-changing, ever-evolving dance of creation and co-evolution.  After all, as my friend Wendy Flaherty says, “We feed what we love.

For over one hundred million years, flowers, including the Sunflower’s ancestors, have reached out to other beings to get their attention—first the insects, then the amphibians, the birds and finally the mammals—in a dance so exquisitely beautiful in its orchestration, so finely tuned, that we are continually astounded to learn new layers of intricacy we couldn’t previously fathom.

The flowers offered color, scent, nectar, and food in exchange for helping them proliferate. The hands of our primate ancestors evolved to reach for the fruits of the flowers. The flowers wooed us—perhaps you could even say they domesticated us—with the original love story of offering us food. And then we began to woo them, to domesticate them, offering greater seed dispersal in return for more food. Scientist Robert Spengler says in his paper Rethinking the Origins of Plant Domestication, “Domestication is not a great human innovation; it is an extension of a natural process.”

In this dance of domestication, did we nourish the Sunflowers, or did they nourish us?

Part Five: Scarcity Amidst the Nourishment

When the Archaic peoples of North America began to work closely with the Sunflower 5,000 years ago, they were already master foragers and had been for thousands of millennia. These were people that knew their environment intimately, because their lives depended on it. They knew how to feed themselves. They were in deep relationship with all the plants and animals around them, knowing which plants were food, which were medicine, when to harvest them, how much to leave to grow for the next season. They knew how to prepare them, cook them, store them. This knowledge had been gleaned over 100,000 years or longer, told in stories passed down as living memories, from generation to generation. The forager’s varied and ever-changing diet protected them from starvation and malnutrition. They didn’t worry about crop failure the way a farmer does.

In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harari says: “In other words, the average forager had wider, deeper, and more varied knowledge of their immediate surroundings than most of their modern descendants. Today, most people in industrial societies don’t need to know much about the natural world in order to survive…The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at an individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history.”

Today, to eat sunflower seeds or sunflower oil, a whole disparate team of collective human effort is required. There are the farmers themselves of course, but there are also the seed farms and scientists who hybridize the seed. There are the industrial plants that process the seeds and press it, when used for oil, and package it. There are the truckers and warehouses and the grocery stores.

We forage at the grocery store in our culture, overwhelmed with choices. And with all these choices, we often still don’t feel nourished, satiated or satisfied. How often have you eaten a meal, yet there is still something you are longing for? What does it feel like to be hungry but nothing you eat is satisfying? The jumbled signals and messages from our culture make it almost impossible to know what we are truly craving. What is nourishment? Are we able today, to recognize when our body is nourished, separately from other longings arising from so many other cultural stresses?

This feeling of not enough drives us to always want more; to grow bigger and “better” Sunflowers for instance. Is this hardwired into our DNA, our bodies, from when our ancestors have experienced times of starvation in the past? What else continues to drive our current feelings of scarcity? Could over-reliance on the grocery store be a factor?

Sunflower helped to chase food scarcity from our lives all those thousands of years ago, stepping up to fill our foraging baskets. It is ironic then, that when we began to farm to control the availability of food, we have come full circle to be at a place where the vast majority of us wouldn’t know how to feed ourselves if the grocery store shelves became empty. Major disruptions in our industrial food supply chain can cause drastic problems of food scarcity almost overnight. We have all experienced a panic run on food staples when there the threat of a major storm coming. Or a pandemic. What other animal is unable to find food and feed themselves to the extent that we are? In addition, a growing number of people don’t even know how to cook food from scratch.

Our human collective is incredibly inventive and has created amazing systems to produce a vast amount of food, enough to nourish all the people in the world. But tragically, food scarcity raises its ugly head everywhere, in both rich and poor countries, perhaps on a deeper level than most of our ancestors ever knew. Huge cracks in our industrial food complex combined with politics and wars and profits leaves 800 million people hungry worldwide- over 10% of the global population and over twice as many people as live in all the United States.

In an age where most of us no longer have land available to forage and hunt and farm on, and our ancient knowledge of how to feed ourselves is lost, we are incredibly dependent on the human collective agricultural industry. We have given up our food sovereignty, perhaps like the Sunflower gave up their reproductive sovereignty, when they began to rely on us to spread their seed. Once lost, both are incredibly difficult to resurrect. We cannot go back; we can only go forward.  

Is it possible to evolve into a sustainable world where there is enough food for all beings to feel nourished when they should? A dramatically new partnership will be needed—one where we listen to the Sunflowers and our Mother Earth—rather than engineering them. They have ancient wisdom we are just beginning to be able to understand.

Part Six: Big Sunflower Comes Home

If we can broaden our perspective to see the world through the senses of the flowers, what might become possible? If we can follow their lead on how to “hybridize” ourselves into new ways of being in relationship with the world, could we feed ourselves more universally and less harmfully? Could we let go of our scarcity mentality? What if we truly believed we had enough?

There are two separate species of monkeys in East Africa, the red tail monkeys and blue monkeys. For eons they have evolved separately, but now they are mating and producing viable hybrid offspring. Like these monkeys, Big Sunflower and Wild Sunflower are coming full circle to rejoin their wisdom, their experiences, and their literal genes to adapt and make the next leap in their evolution.

Sunflowers hedged their bets all those millennia ago when their wild cousins kept the traits needed to survive in the wild. It is our turn to take an initiative, equal to when Sunflowers first stepped up and were willing to surrender some of their long fought for survival traits. Sunflower may have some clues for us if we listen with our hearts.

What happens when Big Sunflower and Wild Sunflower meet up for a long overdue chat?

Wild Sunflower says, “It is so good to see you my ginormous cousin! I don’t normally see you these days out here on the wild prairie of my home, among the grasses. I’ve heard tell of large families of your kind growing all together on farms so huge that you stretch as far as the horizon. I hardly recognize you, dear cousin, look how big you have grown! How radiant you are! You have grown so tall, and your head is so big, I can’t even imagine how you begin to hold it up! How strong you must be. How did this happen, what has gotten into you?”  

Big Sunflower replies, “It’s been quite the adventure since we began partnering with humans to help us spread our seed. They encouraged us to make our seed bigger and better food for them, and it has given us great satisfaction to know we are making more food, for other animals as well. And did you know we are grown all over the planet now by these humans? Quite the success story wouldn’t you say?

But Wild Sunflower felt Big Sunflower was holding something back. And it wasn’t long before Big Sunflower started to lament what they had lost and even shared their fears for the future. Wild Sunflower had never experienced these feelings of fear and was flabbergasted. They couldn’t imagine feeling trapped the way Big Sunflower did, unable to rely on their seed being able to be viable and spread on its own. No longer were they able to choose new pathways slowly and methodically in response to the rhythms of the seasons and eons, with the wisdom of their ancestors behind them. Instead (oh the horror!) Big Sunflower had stories of increasingly rapid changes forced on them by humans manipulating their very genes and more. Where was the balance of the Great Mother’s wisdom in this?

Big Sunflower said, “Oh my wild cousin, thank you for welcoming me back home! I long for the days when I was wild and free like you are. I still feel them in my cells, not yet forgotten. The world is changing rapidly now, and I can never return to what I once was. But I think we have met for more than a chance to share our grief.”

What have I learned from this road I have chosen? We Big Sunflowers have certainly brought a lot of nourishment to the world these last few millennia. Perhaps you and I can work together to make a new path forward that is sustainable. I know I will need your help to weave back into our seed the wild wisdom you have held on to. I think you may have the genes, the wisdom needed that combined with what I have become, could lead us all to a place where a true partnership, a generative creative relationship with both humans, ourselves and our Mother Earth could begin to happen.

Wild Sunflower replied, “What a dream you have! I am not sure, my cousin—they still refer to me as a weed and pay little attention to me. But you, tall with your big seedhead, and huge bright petals, you catch their eye and their respect still today. They love you and revere you, even if they no longer worship you as they once did. You may find a way to help open a newly rekindled understanding of true nourishment between humans and our Mother Earth. What if we could help humans to learn the way we sense and experience the world? Keep holding your head high and listen for the messages from our ancestors and our Great Flower Mother. They will lead us, as always, in ways we don’t expect, and cannot foresee.”

Big Sunflower was feeling rather overwhelmed. They said, “Thank you wild cousin. You have helped me see I am never alone and boxed into a corner like I was beginning to feel I was. Scarcity and feelings of not enough are fears I have learned from the human world. I can let them go when I remember that we are held in the true nourishment of our ancestors and our Great Flower Mother’s wisdom. Today, you have nourished me.”

Standing together, they felt the spirit of the Great Flower Mother come to be with them and blessing them. She said, “I am the Cosmic Flower, the Mother of All Flowers. I am the Flower Dream that dreamt the flowers into matter. I hold the ecstasy that exploded into the first flowers, the flowers you are today, and the flowers to come. I am all the flowers that have ever been. I leap into the abyss of the Unknowing as I have done before and will do again, creating and birthing matter into flowers in everchanging ways. I will always guide you.”

Driving down the road through an endless prairie, I come upon an unusual sight, a lone tall Big Sunflower among a stand of Wild Sunflowers. I stop the car to visit them, and I am overcome with a sense of something like déjà vu. It is as if time drops away into an eon. Standing beside this Big Sunflower, a thought enters my head like a message.

I hear Big Sunflower say to me, “Thank you for nourishing me. Thank you for allowing me to nourish you. Let me nourish you on the road ahead and chase away all your fears of scarcity. May we nourish each other for eons to come, in whatever ways of being that may arise.”

I blink my eyes, wondering where that came from, but feeling a deep trust that overrides my logical mind. Looking up at Big Sunflower, I send a silent reply of “Thank you” and sit in reverie, in this moment of eternity I have been given.

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