This time last year, I sat on top of a hill in Yorkshire and listened to a woman tell me about how growing sunflowers had brought her strength in the face of grief. She was barely in her thirties and she had long wanted a baby, something her body was making difficult for her; the sunflowers brought her some relief. Later, I ordered sunflower seeds myself: “Ms Mars”, “Red Sun”. I pushed them into the flowerbeds.
Recently, I’ve been seeing sunflowers everywhere. They appear on my Instagram feeds – cut in vases, smothering fields beneath blue skies, drawn in ink. Days after Vladimir Putin’s troops invaded Ukraine, a video went viral of a woman in the city of Henychesk. She asks Russian soldiers why they are there, and suggests they pocket the sunflower seeds she is offering them so that when they die on Ukrainian soil, the country’s national flower will grow. Her fury coats every word.
Sunflowers, originally from the US, have been part of Ukraine’s cultural identity for centuries and cultivated on the country’s dry, rich land since seeds were brought over in the 18th century. Sunflower oil stepped in when people were forbidden from eating butter or lard during Lent, and Ukraine subsequently became the world’s biggest producer of it. Sunflower imagery drifts through the country’s folk art; you can see them in the paintings of Maria Prymachenko, many of which were destroyed when the Ivankiv Historical-Cultural Museum was burned in the first week of the conflict.
Along with the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, the sunflower has become an instantly recognisable symbol of support for the Ukrainian people. Drawings of the bright yellow petals and dark brown pistils have been fixed to the exterior of the Russian embassy in London and embroidered on to the First Lady’s cuffs in the US. Protesters cry beneath headdresses of sunflowers. The emoji has appeared in thousands of social media captions and bios.
Plants can seem frivolous compared to the heartbreaking news from Ukraine: the photographs of bomb damage and the video footage of children waving goodbye through train windows, bundled up by parents who might not see them again. I’ve found it difficult to take much excitement from the spring flowers appearing in my garden, horribly aware of how lucky I am to have the safety to relish such things.
But flowers have long grown up around war. In the trenches of Ypres soldiers grew flowers, and carved them into vessels bashed out from empty artillery shells; the poppies that bloomed from the bloodshed remain a symbol of remembrance a century on. The French remember those battlefields through bleuets, or cornflowers; German soldiers pressed forget-me-nots into their letters. Carnations are laid in Saint Petersburg to remember those besieged at Leningrad in the 1940s. As recently as 1996, sunflowers were planted at the Pervomaysk missile base to celebrate the abandonment of the nuclear arsenal Ukraine had inherited with the collapse of the Soviet Union. We think of these flowers beyond their seasons – poppies don’t bloom in November – because their symbolism is so strong.
The sunflowers I sowed in May last year bloomed in late summer, tall and deeply coloured. They did so among others I hadn’t planted: searing yellow, standing pluckily at the front of the beds. These sunflowers, I supposed, were from seed scattered by the bird feeder. They reminded me of the woman I’d spoken to in Yorkshire, whose story lingered with me months later.
We instil plants with meaning for many reasons: they remind us of people we’ve loved, or times in our lives. But they also surprise us; even the most meticulous gardener will encounter the unexpected. These plants – products of the alchemy of botany, soil and fortune – demonstrate the stubbornness of life, even in the most trying of circumstances. Since the Russian invasion, the sunflower has come to represent strength and solidarity, a beacon of hope in adversity. But in some Ukrainian folk stories the sunflower has meant something else, far more poignant as so many people become refugees: a longing for home.
This article appears in the 16 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War Goes Global