I can’t remember the last astronomical sum paid for one of van Gogh’s several versions of sunflowers, but I fully understand his obsession with them. I am less certain of why he painted them in such muted colours, especially given his love of yellow. This morning I woke and looked out of the velux window set into the roof of our house to see sunshine spread like butter across a misty lilting landscape of fields, woods, cows – and sunflowers! We only get them every three years and have been examining the leaves of the new crop planted by the farmer in the spring, desperately hoping it would be sunflowers.
And it was! Field after field of them, faces turned to the sun or to us. We can sit on either of our terrasses, or in the garden, and gaze out on what seems like a never-ending vista of them, trailing across the hills, abutting the woods, their friendly faces shining as brightly as, well, miniature suns. So very different from the acid-yellow, allergy-inducing rapeseed which blights the fields of south-east Kent — though recently there has been much planting of flax, which turns the fields into a beautiful gentle blue.
Here in la France profonde, the rural area of the Perigord, they are a cash crop, providing seed for birds and cattle, oils for cooking and soap-making – and a pleasure without price to all who behold them. Sitting in the evening with a glass of the local wine – Pecharmant, Cahors, Bergerac or one of the treacly-sweet Montbazillac dessert wines – our hearts lift as we gaze at those innocent trusting countenances turned in our direction, like a classroom of children waiting to be told a story. And there is always one plant which stands taller than the others, an irresistible reminder of the smart-arse kid at school who always had his hand up because he knew the answers to the teacher’s questions – “Please, miss, ask me, ask me.”
Some years ago, the sunflower population was under threat. Farmers began using the insecticide Gaucho, which had a disastrous effect on the honey-bees. Those collecting pollen from sunflowers treated with Gaucho began behaving in a confused and nervous manner, though I’m not entirely sure how you can tell that a bee is nervous. However, it was becoming such a big problem that they called it Mad Bee Disease. According to one of our bee-keeping friends, the bees were abandoning the hives, leaving only the all-important queen behind. Or else they were literally shaking to death.
There were massive protests by farmers, honey-producers, bee-keepers. There were marches, petitions, demonstrations, and in the end, the French government backed down and banned the use of the pesticide.
My husband, a mathematician, is thrilled beyond words to be within an arm’s length of so many thousands of examples of the Fibonnacci sequence. These numbers, as he explained to me with great care and many diagrams (since I failed maths at ‘O’ Level all those years ago – though I did get it the second time … just) are very important in mathematics. The sequence is formed by starting with 1 and adding 2 to give 3; then 2 and 3 to give 5; 5and 3 to give 8 and so on till, eventually, you have the numbers 55, 89 and more (look at the picture above).
The number of spirals on the face of a sunflower is the result of the way in which the plant produces the florets (he said.). After the first floret is produced at its centre, another is produced at an angle, called the golden angle, from it. The next floret at another golden angle, eventually pushes the first one away from the centre. Any other angle would result in there being empty spaces in the arrangement of the florets. There appears to be a special relationship between the numbers and the golden angle: indeed if we take the ratios of the numbers 21:34, 34:55, 55:89, and so on, they become closer and closer to the golden ratio.
I hope you followed that, because I didn’t.
I’m more interested in the fact that sunflowers are particularly heliotropic, in other words demonstrate a strong propensity to turn towards or follow the sun. In Italian they call them girasole, in Spanish girasol. The French word is girasol, but ours don’t seem to follow the rule – or are they just being typically bolshie and French? At sunrise their faces are indeed turned towards the rising sun, but as the day continues, they don’t follow it westward. In fact, sometimes they seem deliberately to turn their backs to the sun.
But whatever they do, we cherish them. Symbols of so many things. Hope. Love. Renewal. The nourishing, healing, fructifying sun. All positive and life-affirming. So I found it obscenely repugnant last week when the pro-Russian rebels brought down a passenger-airliner, killing all on board, that we should be shown photo after holocaustic photo of black ash, incincerated wreckage, fire-consumed aeroplane parts and worse, all alongside a great waving field of beautiful sunflowers.