An orange sunflower. Photo by Dee Menear

In late May, as I was pushing vegetable seeds into the warming soil of my garden, I planted a straight line of sunflowers in an empty row.  My thought was the bright late-summer color would draw attention away from plants that would be nearing the end of their useful life.

Wildflowers will always be prominent in my cut flower vase but sunflowers rank high on my list of favorite cultivated blooms. To me, the dark centers haloed with yellow petals are both simple and beautiful.

The packet of seeds I picked was clearly labeled as containing seeds for yellow-petaled flowers on stalks that would reach a height of 14-18 inches.

Based on the information given, I was expecting a neat row of miniature sunflowers.

Like most things this summer, what I was expecting is not what at all what happened.

It seems I picked a packet of mislabeled seeds. Today, my ‘dwarf’ sunflower stalks easily tower eight feet above where they emerge from the ground. While most buds are host to the yellow petals I envisioned, the first one to bloom was a lovely deep burnt orange reminiscent of maple leaf in late fall.


The unexpected height of the stalks reminded me of gardens I planted when my children were little. I would purposely leave a large patch of tilled earth for “sunflower houses”. We’d lay out the walls of their playhouse with a thick line of sunflower seeds. The flowering heads towered tall overhead and the broad-leaf stalks would provide the kids with enough privacy so they could feel like they really did have their own playhouse.

That memory was one I happily recalled over and over as I watched these sunflowers, which were supposed to be no more than a foot and a half tall, reach toward the sky.

My carefully planted row of unexpectedly huge sunflowers brought me so much joy over the last few months. More importantly, they – and one in particular – taught me an important lesson.

I knew sunflowers were wired to follow the sun. They face the sunrise in the morning and their heads rotate as the day progresses.

What I didn’t know is that they choreograph their movements to follow the sun long before the blooms are ready to open.

Day after day, I watched as my barely-budded sunflowers reached for the morning light, and then followed the sun overhead until it dipped behind the wooded horizon at the edge of the property.


Even on the darkest overcast days, my row of sunflowers seemed to reach out and track whatever bright spot they could.

Life is short, especially for annual blooms. These ones instinctively know which direction to face to soak up the warmth of the universe.

Except for my autumn-colored blossom.

It never followed the east-west trajectory of the crowd that towered overhead. This bloom refused to follow the wall of showy flowers that will, undoubtedly, attract attention when their petals are at their peak.

At half the size of its neighbors, this beauty unwaveringly faced southwest from sunup to sundown.

That just happens to be the direction for it to face so it can be my focal point no matter what time of day I enter my garden.


I’ve watched its petals unfurl. I’ve watched bees congregate on its disc florets to collect its pollen. I’ve held the bloom in my hand, caressed its smooth petals and wondered at its vibrant colors. I’ve examined its seed head, knowing it will be cut off and offered to the birds before long.

I have a perennial garden filled with divisions from friends’ gardens, it’s the uncultivated wildflowers that always draw me. Trout lilies in the woods, Black-eyed Susans on the side of the road, wild irises on river banks and Queen Anne’s Lace in the fields have always been few of my favorites.

Until now.

This sunflower, wild in nature and dwarfed in the shade of those around it, stood tall and beautiful despite waning from the path followed by every other flower in the patch.

While the other flowers drew in the light it needed to survive, this one radiated warmth outward.

If it were not for this flower, determined to be different, I would not have been able to closely witness the life cycle of my row of ‘little’ sunflowers.

And that wild determination has made it the most beautiful bloom I’ve ever laid eyes on.

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