SUNFLOWER seeds please a lot of birds, notably cardinals, and we use 150 pounds a year in the bird feeders; therefore, like everybody else who carries on in this way, we have plenty of sunflower plants sprouting in the spring.
They are weedy, of course, with their big fuzzy scratchy leaves, and do very little to enhance marble pavilions (if you happen to have such a thing -- they also do not go very well with gilded statues of George Washington, etc.) but at my place, where they are by no means the only weeds, sunflowers are handsome enough.
Usually I weed them out in May, but this year I left one, which began to bloom early in July. I feel better every time I look at it.
Some of the most beautiful of all garden prints in the past have been of sunflowers, and I suppose most gardeners know the Claude Monet pictures, too.
The sunflower is an American flower, of course. It would do quite well, as far as I am concerned, as the national flower, and while we think of it when we think of Kansas and similar outposts of the empire, still it flourishes virtually everywhere provided it receives sun and heat.
I have never been quite sure about the sunflower of Blake's wonderful lyric, "Ah, Sunflower," which is one of the extremely few successful poems of the language written in anapests. Anapests are almost invariably a mistake. Which is no doubt why Blake was determined to show they can be dandy: Ah, sunflower, weary of time That countest the steps of the sun, Seeking after that sweet golden clime Where the traveller's journey is done; Where the youth pined away with desire, And the pale virgin shrouded in snow, Arise from their graves, and aspire Where my sunflower wishes to go.
He may not have been thinking of our American sunflower; other flowers share that common name. Though the English have always loved our sunflower, and garden books of the last centry commonly showed a neat young woman standing beside a sunflower that had reached 16 feet beside her cottage.
To this day there are people who like to see how tall and how large they can get their sunflower to grow. They wish to possess the biggest aspidistra in the world, so to speak, and it is a harmless enough endeavor, though nothing to the purpose of fine gardening, as Francis Bacon would surely say if he were around to pontificate further.
There is no sweet scent to the sunflower. I always associate them with the scent of June bugs, which clustered thick on the plants I first knew. There was a railroad a few blocks from our house, to which we kids were forbidden to go since there was a hot tamale shop down there that (my Aunt Frances Bodley said) sold tamales positively fatal if eaten, unless one were Spanish or something. Besides, she said (and we had no idea how she knew) it was an utter den of utter iniquity and you would not believe the things that went on there.
Years later, with the boldness of a teen-ager, I surreptitiously went to the place and was terribly disappointed that the iniquity was pretty moderate, and conisted largely of paying for the tamales which were excellent and not fatal thus far, and I am no longer a teen-ager.
Anyway, the train tracks were lined with sunflowers I remember as being 165 feet tall. Perhaps they were not quite that; a little boy on a daring errand of viewing the prohibited sunflowers by the prohibited train track near the prohibited tamale shack is not the most reliable of reporters.
Many a summer morning, however, I viewed them, with the tamale stand on the horizon, and therefore comprehended early on the paradox that high beauty and evil may coexist.
One year I grew some fancy sunflowers that were double, the size of melons, the flowers with petals like a shredded carnation. They came in both the usual yellow and in red. As with so many novelties, they seemed rather on the marvelous or gee-whiz side, but they lacked the style of the plain railroad-track sunflower and I never wished to grow them again.
Near us was a place called Ashlar Hall that I suppose startled people who were not expecting a Norman castle on the Tennessee-Mississippi border. The chatelaine was remarkable partly for jack-knifes off the diving board at the age of 80, and partly for a night-blooming cereus that required four men to lift when it came indoors in winter, and which on some nights had 63 blooms open at once.
But the great thing was that right in front of a massive limestone column was a single sunflower every year. It probably would not have been the choice of the architect, but we all admired it greatly in the fall when little birds hung on, pecking out the seeds.
But even aside from the sunflower's role in art and in memory, it is a glorious robust dignified I-am-what-I-am sort of flower. Wherever there is full sun, and a gardener not too delicate and not too fancy, it should be found. CAPTION: Picture, Claude Monet's "The Artist's Garden at Vetheuil," photograph courtesy National Gallery of Art .