If you read my previous article on shutters you will know why they are part of my blog title, but what about sunflowers? All over France and especially in Provence, from early June to mid-August, the vibrant and smiling faces of sunflowers splash their golden warmth across the landscape.
Dancing in the breeze, their brilliant yellow petals, so close to the sun, seem to sum up the very essence of summer. Incredibly beautiful, it’s no wonder that sunflowers adorn paintings and postcards across the region. With the shutters that frame so many windows in Provence, “Shutters and Sunflowers” struck me as the perfect title for my blog: quintessential images of this intoxicating region of France.
The origin of sunflowers
The sunflower does not originate from France but from the Americas. Cultivated there as early as 1000 BC, sunflowers were a valuable food source and were sometimes used by indigenous societies as a religious symbol. In the 16th century, Spanish explorers brought sunflowers to Europe, not to fill vases or assemble them into stunning bouquets, but to make cooking oil.
The flower of a sunflower is actually a head of tiny flowers crammed together. The inner ring of these flowers ripens into seeds from which we extract sunflower oil, still widely used today both for cooking and for skin emollients.
Sunflowers and art
For centuries artists have been captivated by the glow of sunflowers, especially during the Impressionist era. Van Gogh immortalized them while living in Arles, Provence in 1888. His painting of sunflowers is probably his most famous work.
Van Gogh’s art, including sunflowers, was presented quite spectacularly last year at the video art exhibition ‘Van Gogh, The Starry Night’ at the Carrières de Lumières. The art changes every year at this place; not to be missed if you visit Les Baux de Provence, or try its new Parisian spot. [See France Today’s full article on the concept here.]
The meaning of sunflowers
Sunflowers reflect the attributes of the sun that they so closely resemble, symbolizing worship, loyalty and longevity. Just as energy from the sun provides light and heat, sunflowers provide their own energy in the form of food and vitality.
Reach for the sun
Sunflowers are often photographed with their tall stems and shiny petals stretched out towards the sun, but are they actually following the sun? The leaves and heads of young flowers change orientation from east to west during sunny hours, but mature sunflowers tend not to budge. Known as phototropism, this interesting behavior inspired many ancient designs. Interestingly, the word tournesols in French, The sunflowers, means to turn to the sun.
Sunflowers bloom from late June to late July and are usually harvested in early August. There are several varieties of these annuals some of which even have red petals. They are usually quite tall and can grow up to 12 feet.
Take care of your bouquet of sunflowers
Like any flower, your freshly picked sunflowers will last much longer. Unless you grow your own, sunflowers found at a farmer’s market are often the freshest, most likely to have been cut that morning. It is not difficult to find a market somewhere in Provence every day! To keep the sunflowers fresh, remove any leaves that will be submerged in the water and cut the stems at an angle. This will add support to the bottom of the rod and help the top of the rod stay stiff. Use a large vase to prevent wilting near the sunflower head and fill it with water. To keep the flowers fresh, cut their ends again every few days and replace the water regularly.
Why do I like sunflowers? Simply because their bright, cheerful faces make me happy. With the shutters (shutters), sunflowers (The sunflowers) are perfect images of the place that is so close to my heart, Provence. Hence the name of my blog, Volets et Tournesols and the title of my novel The sunflower field. Coming soon, The sunflower field tells the true story of the WWII Polish code breakers who smashed the German cipher system, the Enigma code. Forced to flee through war-torn Europe, these incredible men worked underground in a small Uzès castle surrounded by the sunflowers of Provence.