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Sunflowers a symbol of Kansas, an emblem of the prairie

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, July 18, 2012, at 7:40 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, July 18, 2012, at 7:49 p.m.

Drive down any back road and see for yourself the hundreds of native golden faces following the sun.

Behold the state flower : Helianthus annuus.

Do not mistake it for its larger, beefier cousins standing in fields so huge that their faces look like vast crowds in stadiums.

The sunflower symbolizes Kansas, decorating its landscape, the state banner and flag.

Summer is the season of sunflowers. And they are in full bloom.

“I love them. I grow them. They’ve been called tough daisies, kin to black-eyed Susans,” said Thomas Fox Averill, a Kansas historian and a professor of English at Washburn University in Topeka.

For more than a century, the beloved flowers have been one of the most recognized icons of Kansas, emblematic of what it took to survive on the prairie.

But quite frankly, we’ve sometimes had a love/hate relationship.

In 1895, the Kansas Legislature voted the sunflower a noxious weed and ordered it cleared from the state.

Within eight years, the Legislature changed its mind and made it the state flower.

Now, Kansas is the Sunflower State.

In 1930, Kansas writer Marvin Creager wrote that the sunflower “made its own way … It stood on the dusty roadside and out on the high prairie … It turned its gold petals and black center always toward the sun.”

According to Steve Swaffar, executive director of the Kansas Sunflower Commission, sunflowers as a crop are primarily grown in North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska and Texas. North Dakota produces about half of the U.S. sunflower crop; Kansas comes in third, with farmers typically planting more than 100,000 acres.

Try as you might, you won’t see many sunflower fields in Sedgwick County. Here there isn’t the equipment and elevators that will take them, said Gary Cramer, Sedgwick County agricultural extension agent. You will need to edge into Reno County or other counties to see the large fields, such as on U.S. 50 west of Hutchinson.

The bigger fields of sunflower crops are found in northwest Kansas. Sherman County produces more sunflowers than anywhere else in the state.

And in Goodland, the sunflower capital of Kansas, you can find where the giant reproduction of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Three Sunflowers in a Vase.”

Late July to mid-August are the glory days when the crop sunflowers bloom.

The endless fields of yellows and greens last only seven to 14 days before the flowers begin to drop petals and droop, waiting for late September and October when the combines roar across the fields. Their seeds will be used for cooking oil, snack products and birdseed.

Whatever the sunflower of your choice, these bright flowers are a beacon of summer, a beacon of Kansas.

“No matter how fiercely the sun beat down,” Creager wrote of the sunflower, “It never lost courage … It is the last bit of vegetation to surrender to the hot winds … It loved life, and it was genuine.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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