It felt rather empowering, I must admit: this must be how a teacher or lecturer feels, I thought, stood in front of a room of learners, their faces upturned towards yours.
But of course, the sunflowers were not looking at me. Their bright faces and dark eyes were looking at the Sun, or rather, where the Sun rose a few hours ago (contrary to popular belief, sunflowers only follow the Sun across the sky when very young; mature, flowering sunflowers will (usually) just face east, to capture the first of the Sun’s warmth in the morning). It is a welcome reminder that, from the perspective of nature – whether wild or farmed – we aren’t the centre of attention. In fact, nature hardly knows we are here.
Last week, we returned to the 5-acre field on the Rougham Estate that has been transformed into a labyrinth of sunflowers, which forms part of the estate’s two Pick-Your-Own events (we wrote about the other – for pumpkins – last year). Despite the occasional threatening-looking cloud, the rain held off, and at times it felt like we had the whole field to ourselves. In addition to the sunflowers, some areas had been sown with wildflowers, and everywhere bees and butterflies were enjoying the sunflowers (almost) as much as we were.
A dry summer last year had meant that few of the sunflowers had grown more than a few feet tall, but this year, the living walls of the paths reached above our heads. I had to climb up onto the seat of a giant chair to get that view of the sunflowers looking at me. Other strange furniture found at dead-ends in the maze included a swing, garlanded with flowers and – surreally – a small rowing boat, from which two children looked up at us as we walked past as if to say ‘What’s weird about a rowing boat in the middle of a field of sunflowers?’
The sunflower is deeply connected to childhood. For many children, the sunflower is the flower: if given a piece of paper and a pack of colouring pencils, and asked to draw a flower, it will be the sunflower they will draw, despite the fact that the playing field outside is glowing with dandelions and daisies, and they may be walking past poppies, cow parsley and forget-me-nots all the way home. Similarly, Vincent can Gogh’s sunflowers paintings are often the first works of art a child can recognise (they were certainly mine).
Sunflowers – alongside perhaps cress – are also be the first plants most children grow with their parents, watching with astonishment as the thick, Jack-and-the-Beanstalk-like stem outgrows first them, then their parents, and then the garden shed. I remember my amazement at seeing endless fields of sunflowers growing alongside autoroutes in France and wondering why: at the time, the idea that sunflowers might also be a crop was something I’d never contemplated.
Since February 2022, the sunflower has had a very different meaning: as the national flower of Ukraine, the image of sunflowers has come to represent solidarity with the country in response to the Russian invasion. The sunflower has an older Ukrainian heritage, however. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, sunflowers were planted in the area to remove radioactive isotopes from the water and soil, due to their ability to absorb and store these materials. Sunflowers, it seems, remain an overwhelmingly positive symbol, signifying innocence and hope.
We brought an armful of short, slender flowers, sat at one of the benches with our harvest and drank coffee, watching the new arrivals stream past. Two women and three girls – all dressed in matching floral dresses – were being dragged over to a face painting tent by the youngest, most enthusiastic member. A middle-aged couple, holding hands, just entering the field, stopped for a moment to take photographs, first one of her posing in front of a sea of sunflowers, and then one of him. Two children – brother and sister, I suspect – sprinted past our table, racing each other to the top of a nearby ziggurat of stacked haybales.
We returned home feeling rather buoyant and optimistic: it felt like, even within a stone’s throw of the busy A14, this field had captured something of the innocence and hope of sunflowers, and they continued to radiate positivity from their vase in the living room for almost two weeks.