Seeds and Sunflowers: A Gift of Spring and Wonder
Come spring planting time, I have a custom of sending sunflower seeds to friends. Mostly to children, that is my godchildren and children for whom I serve as courtesy uncle. But, there are some adults, too.
This personal tradition began when I helped a couple with their garden in Eugene, Oregon where I attended the University of Oregon. Each spring during my college years, I helped plant their vegetable garden. One year, in an act of minor subterfuge, I planted a row of gigantic sunflowers. They came to towering bloom long after I left for summer. Happily, they knew me well and saw the humor. And the neighbors did, too, as they stood well above their fence and contrasted with the neat order of their yard.
I feel a biographical connection to sunflowers because they are tall with a gangly personality and always add an element of surprise anywhere they are planted. Many varieties stand more that ten feet, eclipsing my mere 6′7" frame.
Thomas Jayne standing next to Mrs. Mayer in her 1965 second grade class picture for St. Matthews Episcopal School in Pacific Palisades, California.
They are extremely heat and drought resistant, thus easy and dramatic to grow. Native to the Americas, probably the Mississippi basin, it is common to see them along American roadsides.
However, rarely, do they find their way into proper formal gardens It is not considered good taste. Neater forms of garden plants are preferred. "The Sunset Western Garden Book" (Lane, 1988), which was the definitive source of horticultural knowledge in my southern California youth, intones:
“HELIANTHUS, comositae, SUNFLOWER: coarse, sturdy plants with bold flowers. All are tough, tolerant plants for full sun,any garden soil. Perennial kinds spread rapidly, may become invasive. Not for tidy gardens."
Second image, clockwise from top left: sunflower andirons by Bradley & Hubbard, circa 1900; doorway in Prague; William de Morgan Sunflower and Scales lustre tile, circa 1870; William Morris sunflower wallpaper.
Last summer, when I was working in Newport, I visited Oatsie Charles, the great gardener and tastemaker. In her perfect herbaceous border, there were some surprising choices of plants that only a sophisticated gardener can use with success. Tucked amongst them into the back of this area were sunflowers—there they were, smiling good-naturedly, the tallest student in the class. Good taste is sometimes about how one combines the awkward and the surprising.
The sunflower, removed from its long stock, is symmetrical and ordered. This symmetry of the flower themselves had great appeal to decorative artists of the late 19th century. The sunflower became the badge of the aesthetic movement. Its use on wallpaper designs, andirons, and tiles come to mind.
In his 1882 American tour, Oscar Wilde drew attention to the Aesthetic movement by wearing sunflowers or lilies with his dandy’s costume of black velvet coat, knee breeches, frilly shirt, and patent leather pumps. He explained that aesthetes loved the sunflower and lily because they were "the two most perfect models of design. They are the most naturally adopted for decorative art. The gaudy leonine beauty of the one, the precious loveliness of the other …"