One of the innumerable advantages of having dogs is that you see a lot of things going on in the alley that you'd otherwise miss, such as some fine sunflowers we always admire when walking the mutts.
These are the great Russian sunflowers with seed heads the size of dinner plates born on a nodding stem. As they ripen (and long before they get hard) the birds assemble and start digging seeds out, but toward the last, when the seed head has bent parallel to the ground, only the smallest and most agile birds can manage.
Although called "Russian," this sunflower comes like the others from America, and is simply the result of continued selection for large seed heads, and it is grown for the valuable oil it contains.
When I was a kid I sometimes went down to a railroad switching yard which boasted great stands of sunflowers and plenty of June bugs. Ever since, I think of our delectable summers as full of sunflowers against a milk-white sky shimmering in the almost visible heat.
Of course you can get sunflowers of different sizes. Some are perennial, but the ones I like are annuals. Some are not taller than waist-high, and some are double like football chrysanthemums, and you can get them in reddish mahogany as well as two or three tints of yellow.
To my mind, however, nothing equals the big old sunflowers, and if I lived on a farm or had a big garden I'd grow them every year, hoping to achieve a bigger sunflower than anybody else in the world. As it is, I rarely grow any at all, though it hurts me to pull up the young plants springing up from seeds the birds have dropped.
The National Garden Bureau recently sent along a leaflet extolling the beauty of the sunflower, which is what has resolved me to plant a few this spring, since there will be plenty springing up from the bird feeder. The oldest remains of sunflowers, the bureau informs me, are to be found in certain archeological sites of 3000 B.C.
The center of wild sunflowers is said to be our western plains country, but the first breeders of sunflowers seem to have been the Indians of the Ozark bluff country, and of course sunflowers were grown immemorially in the Mississippi-Missouri valley lands.
Seeds were lightly roasted, ground and made into bread. The Zunis devised a rattlesnake-bite cure from the sunflower and the Dakotas made an infusion of the seeds to relieve chest pains.
The first great portrait of the sunflower was that of the Belgian herbalist, Rembert Dodoens, and by 1616 the flower was common in England. John Evelyn invented a recipe for macaroons out of sunflower flour but added (in an early example of truth in advertising) they tasted like turpentine, (A later writer said nonsense, the flavor is as agreeable as almonds and is very good for chickens).
The Orthodox Church in Russia proscribed the use of many delicious foods during Lent, but sunflower seeds were all right, so this was a grand source of oil in the diet without breaking any religious strictures. The Russians surpass us in their interest in sunflowers and I imagine the Pentagon will start hollering about this gap the instant Congress resumes its work.
There was a house in the neighborhood when I was a kid that was built of fine ashlar limestone blocks in the manner of a Romanesque castle, and right outside the front door the owners always grew a sunflower, coaxing it along to enormous dimensions. It stayed there all winter, because they liked to see the cardinals eating the seeds. It did look a bit odd and rural in the middle of the city, and possibly some picky architect would say it was not the right flower for the architecture, but we all admired its progress through the months. And every year a new one.
Any fool, to be plain, can grow a sunflower, provided there is full sun. You can give it a boost by fertilizing it as the flower buds appear, but this is hardly necessary. You don't have to water it or spray it for dreadful maladies (it surpasses the rose in this respect) and it never gets too hot for this flower.
Ah, sunflower, weary of time (as Blake says in that admirable poem). But the truth is the sunflower never looks weary to me, and once the warm weather arrives it is the great gung-ho flower of the continent. When the bloom nods on its stem it is hardly for weariness, but from over-opulence. It does not, by the way, follow the sun as anybody can see by watching the bloom. People think it turns its bloom to the sun hour by hour, and it's a pretty story. But you can't fool a kid who has spent a great deal of time (it would be illegal now, of course) in the switching yard with his terrier among the sunflowers and the June bugs.