Wild Sunflowers

A Wild Sunflower thrives roadside.


Helianthus annuus; Opuntia humifusa; Artemisia tridentate

My good friend and office wife, Kristin, is away on work-related travel this week to a location on the Wyoming-Montana border.  She’s there to help the Crow Indian Tribe develop sustainable tourism programs on their reservation.  Don’t ask me exactly what that means, or precisely how she plans to accomplish it.  Sounds impossible to me, yet she is as excited about this venture as she has been about her similar projects in Peru, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, and Jordan.  Kristin cares about people, and cares whether or not tourism impacts their culture in a positive manner and serves to improve their lives, no matter how and where those lives are lived.  She is passionate about sustainable tourism development, and that is one of the reasons why she has my undying respect.

Plus, she is just a plain old hoot to have around the office.  I’ve said it before, I will say it again:  I collect oddities, including odd people, and she is one of them.   Case in point:  do you know what her two greatest fears are?  1)  Brain Aneurism.  2)   Being mistaken for a drag queen.   There.  Enough said?

When Kristin first announced this project, I reminded her that she would be developing said sustainable tourism no more than forty miles from where I was born and reared (as we phrase it in the country).  I advised her to be prepared for a world that is as foreign as any of the countries she has traveled to (and trust me, she has traveled to most of them).  She didn’t believe me until after she had witnessed first-hand the culture that is my birthright and the landscape that is my homeland.

For weeks following Kristin’s return from her first trip to this desolate part of our great nation, she would spontaneously burst into my office to share some little detail about the local landscape or culture or the people’s habits that she had suddenly remembered with a renewed surprise or amazement or shock.

“They have prairie dogs!” she once exclaimed.

“Yes,” I replied with a broad smile, because I personally think prairie dogs are one of the cutest things in all of nature.  “That’s home.  We have prairie dogs”

Kristin now makes her second journey to the Wyoming-Montana border, a locale that, while not where I choose to unfurl my bloom, is none-the-less where my roots lie.  There, as these last days of September tick off, the morn is fast approaching when frost or  snow will have descended and put everything in its path to bed for the long winter ahead, be it human, animal, or plant.  Mind you, most things plant-related have long since been driven into hibernation by the blast furnace hell that is summer in that clime, those three months when temperatures hover around a dry one hundred degrees on a daily basis and thunderstorms are as infrequent as they are welcomed.

Late September, however, is the prime blooming period for the native Wild Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) that sprout along every ditch bank and highway (where they survive by collecting the precious extra precipitation that the nonporous asphalt sheds to the shoulder).   This time of year they are a brilliant bit of flash in an otherwise weather-washed landscape.

I awoke this morning to a photo that Kristin had texted to me, of a four-foot Wild Sunflower plant in full bloom.  She had snapped the photo with her cell phone camera along the side of a remote two-lane highway, a scene very familiar to my youth.  I knew in my every cell that the stark blue sky arced above from one horizon to the other, that the surrounding rolling grey terrain was endless.  I could smell the heady fragrance of the sagebrush (Artemisia tridentate), which also chooses to bloom in the fall.  And I swear if I stared intently at the photo I saw the bright yellow flowers waving gaily (or is that gay-ly?) in the wake of the passing traffic.

These plants are true survivors in a brutal landscape, and they have evolved special characteristics to ensure that they pass their fertilized seeds on to face the next summer’s fossilizing heat.  Their foliage is lined with glandular hairs that can cause allergic contact dermatitis in foraging humans, animals, and insects.  The flowers specifically attract fall-occurring butterflies, like the Whites and Sulphurs, who ensure pollination.  And, finally, the plants are known to accumulate nitrates from the soil which can sicken mammals who indulge in the foliage.  The seeds, however, are safe to eat; I have seen many a charming chick-a-dee hanging upside-down on a seed pod, lunching.  In fact this wildling was cultivated and domesticated by Native Americans, like Kristin’s Crow, for use as a food source – they selectively developed varieties with much larger seeds.

Kristin’s text-messaged Wild Sunflower photo immediately transported me back to my rural youth, to walking in the fresh autumn sunshine along deserted blacktop, to a time when I was unfettered and unaffected.  Remembering my own long-lost innocence warmed me.

“My favorite!” I replied.  “Aren’t they beautiful?”

Kristin answered, “Yeah, I love how they grow along the highway when everything else is dry and dead.   I think you should write a chapter about desert plants, or plants that thrive in nothingness.”

“My cousin Carla has been bugging me to tackle that, too,” I typed back.  And this is true.  Cousin Carla has revealed that she can only grow plants that require abuse and neglect to thrive, and that she thinks you, dear readers, would find this to be an appropriate and interesting garden topic.  I think she is correct.  Cousin Carla also thinks that Wyoming’s Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa) are reminiscent of Wyoming’s men:  thorny and stubborn, but underneath vulnerable and, occasionally, capable of blooming with absolute and stunning beauty.

Kristin followed up.  “It wouldn’t be hard although might be a bit personal.  This is a rough place that is pretty harsh, unforgiving yet beautiful.  Things like these yellow flowers not only find their place, but they thrive . . . but you compare that to the same flower that I had in my garden this year that died because I gave it too much (water, shade, love, etc.).  Everything (everyone) simply has to find the conditions where they thrive.”  And then came the words that touched my heart:  “Reminds me of you.”

I have three simple thoughts about this exchange.

First, when has Kristin, or anyone, ever witnessed the old Queen Gardener shirking from something personal?

Secondly, I think Kristin has covered the bases on why the Wild Sunflower is an especially poignant plant specimen and how its adaptation relates specifically to gardening and more generally to life.  She has done so succinctly and with a heart-felt simplicity.  There is little I could do to improve on her message.

Lastly, I have now been compared to a roadside Wild Sunflower, one of my absolute favorite flowers and a plant that is personally meaningful to me.  I can die happy.

I posted Kristin’s photo on Facebook with a simple status update:  “Kristin sent me this photo from the wild west . . . makes me a tiny bit homesick for somewhere that hasn’t been home for decades.”

And, indeed, it did.

2 thoughts on “Wild Sunflowers

    • I could actually see you and Kristin being friends. She is delightful, as are you. But beyond that, there are certain similarities…next time you come this way, I’ll arrange for us all to have a cocktail together. 🙂

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