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Look closely -- it's not just another pretty face

September 07, 2006|Emily Green | Time Staff Writer

SUNFLOWERS are the true American beauty. They have it all: stamina, fast growth, architecture, fecundity, attitude and, above all, color. The proportions twixt stem and head are so sweetly comical that all it takes is the sight of a sunflower display at Trader Joe's to defuse the rage that brews daily in its parking lots.

In the wild, sunflowers are so stunning that driving down the 110 past Dodger Stadium, it is hard not to crash as one catches sight of a freeway verge studded with gold. As L.A.'s hillsides turn brown in late summer heat, somehow wild sunflowers still glow from the brush.

Even at 70 mph, the difference between the freeway sunflower and the Trader Joe's flower is clear. The Trader Joe's flowers -- i.e., the commercially cultivated ones -- are large, often single-headed, with stems as thick as some tree branches.

By contrast, the freeway flowers are smaller, elegantly branched, with each of those limbs producing radiant blooms clear through autumn without so much as a spritz from a hose.

Sunflowers have such renegade glee that it seems incredible that the flowers at Trader Joe's should be from the same family, never mind from the same genus or species. But they are. Both are Helianthus annuus. Dividing the supermarket and wild flower are at best a few miles -- and more than 4,000 years of domestication by humans, the last five centuries in the hands of European breeders.

For gardeners, choosing between the two poses a poignant challenge. Are we capable of appreciating the potential of our native flora for home gardens? Or, as we take ever more land for housing, will we only admit nursery standards that have been treated to extreme makeovers? Whichever way we do it, how do we capture the plant's almost magical ability to produce autumn gold?

The sunflower sold at Trader Joe's has had so much work done that it can and does pass as European. For many, it evokes Russia, for others France. Don't be fooled. Samovars are Russian, Brie is French, sunflowers are American.

SEEDS snatched by colonists in the earliest expeditions to North America and Mexico were quickly propagated back in Europe and Russia and turned into an oilseed business.

What set sunflowers apart from the other cash crops whisked out of the Americas was their high, happy beauty. No other plant slipped quite so easily between crop and ornament. When Van Gogh wanted to dazzle his pal Gauguin, he didn't choose corn, tomatoes or peppers to paint, he selected sunflowers. When he set out to paint those sunflowers, he didn't do it once but on canvas after canvas.

It is the architecture of the sunflower that has made it so attractive to farmers and artists alike. In the center of it, where normally one would find pistils and stamens, there is a collection of as many as 750 individual flowers on a single head. Each of these is called a disc floret.

This center mass is often -- but not always -- encircled by a bonnet of what look like petals but are in fact ray florets. The high-density arrangement earned not just the sunflower but also its wider family the name "composites," or "comps," to the botanical in crowd.

For the sunflower farmer, the structure translates as yield. One head of a 'Russian Giant' can easily yield hundreds of oil-rich seeds. For breeders in the ornamental trade, selection and propagation of freak flowers have turned the sunflower seed business into a novelty market.

Left to their own devices, sunflowers are capable of coming in shades from crimson to the trademark Van Gogh yellow. Yet in the wild, says taxonomist Dieter Wilken of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, the yellow predominates. Among floral yellows, Helianthus yellow is so intensely saturated that it's a hard color to pull off if you're not a sunflower -- or a school bus.

Van Gogh only captured its brilliance because a revolution in paint chemistry had just produced chrome yellow. Incas hammered likenesses of sunflowers in gold. All very impressive, until one considers that the plant produces the radiance with little more than air, water, dirt and sunshine.

Ask professor John K. Fellman, a plant chemist at Washington State University at Pullman how the plant bottles sunshine, and he will tell you about genetic switches and metabolic pathways that during photosynthesis allow plants to create compounds responsible for color. In the case of yellow, carotenoids get most of the credit.

But the bottom line, says Fellman, is we still don't know exactly how the sunflower performs its alchemy.

THERE is more certainty about why yellow dominates the sunflower family. Bees and butterflies are drawn to it. "It's a way of making plants have sex," says Curtis Clark, a botanist at Cal Poly Pomona. Pollinators are drawn to it. The more pollinators, the more fertilized flowers; the more fertilized flowers, the more seeds; the more seeds, the more plants.

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