Sunflowers have been around for centuries, originating in the Americas and later introduced to Europe by Spanish explorers. They have become a symbol of adoration and loyalty as well as a sign of happiness, positivity, longevity and good luck. The bright yellow flowers are often used in bouquets or given as gifts to express these positive sentiments. Sunflowers also have many practical uses; their seeds are very nutritious, their oil can be extracted from its kernels for culinary use, and they are an important source of food for birds and other wildlife
WHY ARE THEY CALLED SUNFLOWERS?
They not only look like the sun with their circular shape and bright yellow petals, they track it as well. The French name for sunflower is tournesol, meaning “turn to the sun,” which is what the flowers do as the sun moves through the sky over the course of the day. This interesting behaviour, known as phototropism, has inspired motifs in many ancient works of art. There are more than 50 varieties of sunflowers, including some with red petals, that resemble the sun burning in the sky. These towering annual plants grow to be 5 to 12 feet tall, while their heads can grow to be 12 inches wide.
In the 1970s, governments, including France’s, realized the importance of producing seed oils domestically, rather than importing less healthy oils from Africa. They require very little fertilizer and water, making them very sustainable to grow. A single sunflower contains over 2,000 edible seeds in its head, providing nutritional value in healthy fats, protein, and antioxidants such as vitamin E, which is why they are also used in beauty products. The current war between the world’s top two producers of sunflowers, Russia and Ukraine, threatens their supply so countries such as France are rapidly expanding and supporting their own sunflower industry.
SUNFLOWERS AND VINCENT VAN GOGH
Sunflowers were immortalized by Van Gogh’s many still life paintings from the time that he lived in Arles, around 1888-1889. Van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers remain his most famous. The Impressionist painted a total of five large canvases with sunflowers in a vase, with three shades of yellow and nothing else, demonstrating that it was possible to create an iconic image with variations of a single colour, without any loss of eloquence. The sunflower paintings had a special significance for Van Gogh: they communicated “gratitude,” he wrote in a letter.
He hung the first two in the room of his friend, the painter Paul Gauguin, who came to live with him for a while in the famous Yellow House. Gauguin was impressed by the sunflowers, which he thought were “completely Vincent.” Gauguin later asked for one as a gift, which Van Gogh reluctantly gave him. He later produced two loose copies, one of which is now in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. In a letter to his sister from that time, he tells her he intends to decorate his studio in nothing but sunflowers, making them his artistic signature. He wrote to brother as well, saying “the sunflower is mine.”
WHERE TO SEE SUNFLOWERS IN FRANCE
In France, depending on the region, the best time to see sunflowers in full bloom is July, before harvest starts in mid-August. You can often see cyclists peddling past bucolic fields of sunflowers during the annual Tour de France bike race in July. To see them in full glory, take the rural road D942 from Carpentras to Avignon or a road between Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and Noves. There are several fields near Orange, Manosque, and also around Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade. The Luberon Villages are also a great destination for viewing lavender and sunflower fields side-by-side.
TOP SUNFLOWER FESTIVALS
The Sunflower Festival, Aix-en-Provence, France
Featuring music, a parade with sunflower costumes, hot-air balloon rides in a giant sunflower, as well as special local dishes made with the region’s sunflower seeds and oil.
The Great Sunflower Project, San Francisco, USA
This lively event celebrates the beauty of sunflowers while helping scientists track their pollination patterns and other important ecological information. There are workshops teaching visitors how to identify different types, and guided hikes on surrounding trails.
Chilliwack Sunflower Festival, Chilliwack, BC, Canada
Hosted by the same farmers that run the Chilliwack Tulip festival, this new festival was inspired by the beautiful fields of sunflowers they saw on a trip to Hawaii. Spanning from mid-August to Labour Day on September 4, this Fraser Valley festival features food trucks, lawn games and photo ops with over 50 varieties of sunflowers to enjoy, along with dahlias, gladiolas, zinnias, cosmos and wildflowers across 8 acres. Vintage bicycles, a windmill, a horse-drawn carriage, swing sets and a vintage Morris car round out the fun. Take some sunshine home with the “u-pick” for sunflowers, and don’t miss the fresh Chilliwack corn on the cob, available only at this time of year.
Pemberton Sunflower Maze, Pemberton, BC, Canada
For this year’s sunflower extravaganza at Laughing Crow Organics Farm, 100,000 sunflowers have been planted in a maze for all ages, with the rows oriented to capture the spectacular views of Mt. Currie in the Pemberton Valley, 30 minutes North of Whistler resort. From August 4th until the flowers bow their heads in early September, guests can explore to maze for a $9 entry fee (children under 3 are free) before heading next door to The Beer Farmers for locally grown and crafted lagers from a fourth generation organic farm.