116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
One flower. One bee.
A field of grand sunflowers looked away, intriguing in their uniformity. But one sunflower looked back. Why? Had it gone rogue? Was something so interesting to the west it overcame conformity?
A high summer tour of a sunflower plantation and maze was proof you don’t have to go far or spend a lot of money for amazing entertainment. Our walk among the tall stalks at a Benton County farm was postcard. The sun was high and the day was hot but the breeze helped us cool. In the colors of the sunflower patch were more tones of green and gold than one might find at Lambeau Field.
The patch had only days left, for their appointment with the reaper was at hand. Like the best wine, this grandeur was saved for last.
I knew it would be a nice family jaunt to look at the tall plants. Fortunately I was open to being surprised at the mystery and intrigue there. Rachel Carson challenged us to develop and then hold onto a “sense of wonder” such as a child has. If anything can make you feel younger on the inside, it’s the flowers of the fields. Inspiration for painters and poets alike. My favorite poem on the topic is the minimalist entry from Emily Dickinson:
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover and one bee.
The reverie alone will do,
If the bees are few.
Two bumblebees on a sunflower face caught my attention. The jolly-looking pollinators are solitary creatures. Most every bumblebee I saw on the broad faces of sunflowers was working alone, another’s arrival always sparked conflict. But here, this one time, I found a pair and let it be a special moment.
Three vitamins are concentrated in the edible seeds of sunflowers: A, B, and C. Little wonder ancient mesoamericans domesticated the species thousands of years ago, a plant rich in nutrients and fiber has great value. The variants developed since are testaments to human ingenuity to maximize what nature offers as well as our love for pretty things.
The butterflies too were enjoying the scene, and I them. Sporadically a Monarch would alight on a sunflower, its sail-like wings buffeted by the wind as it sought a foothold steady enough to probe the florets for nectar.
If totally ignorant of Monarch butterflies, one would dismiss the silly notion they could fly very far let alone migrate to Mexico. Yet, they do.
Five, is the “growing zone” for much of Iowa. Beauty and utility compelled humans to breed the plant from its tropical origins to take to the prairies of Iowa, much like corn.
As with any great array of botanical beauty, it is one thing to appreciate a flower up close, but a delight to take in the whole of a plantation.
A close observance of the sunflower face will reveal oodles of smaller flowers. An observant gaze will notice the pattern of the face, that the tiny florets are organized in a spiral. Most amazingly the spiral of florets follows the Fibonacci series of numbers. That pattern has a mysterious prevalence among plants worldwide.
Eight inches of root depth, according to the USDA, proves a sunflower’s domestication. The wild varieties have much deeper roots. The domesticated sunflowers we grow in gardens and fields traded their deep perennial roots for tall bodies, heads heavy with seed, and the constant attention of people.
Thirteen species of bumblebees in Iowa pay attention to sunflowers, too. My untrained eyes only noticed their general look. But the possibility of a special species like the rusty-patched amongst the flowers did add a little intensity to my wandering. There’s so much to see in nature if one just takes the extra gaze.
Sunflowers practice heliotropism, a fancy way of saying they turn their faces to follow the sun’s journey. But approaching the time of harvest, when their life force prepares for that next step, they stop moving their faces. Instead, they face to the east. They await one more sunrise, one more greeting from Aurora. But then, there was one sunflower looking west.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and sits on the Linn County Conservation Board.