March 2013

Eighteen miles past Kanorado, at Goodland, Kansas, stand the largest sunflowers one is ever likely to see.  We are in the car, without directions, but if this flora is as big as I’ve heard it is, we’ll find it.  Yep, here we are, next to Bubba’s Meat Block and Bill’s Shootin’ Shop.  Should’ve known.

 – I title this, “Lisa Under the Sunflowers”

These sunflowers are actually a painting.  The canvas rests upon what Goodlanders call the largest easel in the world.  At 80 feet of height and 45 000 pounds of steel, it just might be.

This piece of art was painted by Canadian artist Cameron Cross and dedicated in August 2001, during Goodland’s Sunflower Festival.  The painting is 32 feet by 24 feet and is a representation of van Gogh’s Three Sunflowers In A Vase.

You do know, don’t you, that the sunflower is the state flower of Kansas.  The highest point in Kansas is named Mount Sunflower.  This is an excerpt from the 1903 Kansas Statutes, Chapter 73, Article 18, Section 73-1801…

Whereas, Kansas has a native wild flower common throughout her borders, hardy and conspicuous, of definite, unvarying and striking shape, easily sketched, moulded, and carved, having armorial capacities, ideally adapted for artistic reproduction, with its strong, distinct disk and its golden circle of clear glowing rays — a flower that a child can draw on a slate, a woman can work in silk, or a man can carve on stone or fashion in clay…

And so forth and so on.  Just what every child, woman or man could want in a flower, especially the armorial capacities.

(Come to think of it, it was not Article IX, paragraph 2a of the United States Constitution that dictates one must say, when driving through the mid-west, “Wow, what a flat state!  I’ll bet it’s flatter than a pancake!”  It was the 1903 Kansas Statutes, Chapter 99, Article 16, Section 102.)

Here’s a mindblower.  Look at the flower part of a sunflower.  Pretty, eh?  Now look closely.  That flower is actually made up of thousands of individual flowers joined together at their base.  The large petals around the edge of the head are individual ray flowers, which are sterile, while the inner florets mature into seeds.

Here we go, off to geekland.  The spirals follow a mathematical construct known as the Fibonacci Sequence.  This pattern repeats throughout the natural and created world in all kinds of disciplines like music, biology, electricity, architecture and art.  The ancient Greeks described this design as an expression of truth and beauty.

There are a number of ways to generate the Fibonacci Sequence.  The easiest way is to start with the number 1 and add it to itself…

1   1   2

Then add the last two numbers together…

1   1   2   3

Keep doing that…

1   1   2   3   5   8   13   21   34   55   89   144   233

…and so forth.

While this is enormous fun and a great activity if you are single and by yourself on a Saturday night, it has many practical purposes too.  The spiral patterns of the sunflower follow the Fibonacci Sequence.  Count the interconnecting spirals in the flower and you find that there are 34 left spirals and 55 right spirals, or the other way around.  Look at these numbers:  34 and 55 are on the sequence.  The larger flowers have 89 in one direction and 144 in the other, also on the sequence.  Is this more than just fun?  Maybe it’s coincidence.

Nope, not coincidence.  Look here.  This pattern is one of the most efficient ways to pack a space, like the seeds of a sunflower.  In biology, the more efficiently structured the organism, the less energy it will require for survival and growth.  Streamlined use of energy raises the probability that these plants will thrive.  And we just thought sunflowers were pretty.

They are pretty, and as we say, mathematically elegant.

The sunflower is impressive enough to put on the state quarter (it’s toward the hind end of the bison) and the state flag.  And to name your high point after.

Sunflowers can grow as high as fifteen feet in the air.  (If they were a state, it would be easy to get to the high point.  Altitude:  15 feet.)  When I was a kid, the guy on the end of the my city block had gigantic sunflowers growing in his yard.  Freaked me out, those damned things towering over me.  It didn’t help that he had a pigeon coop and one of the big kids told me that the cooing sounds were coming from ghosts kept in the shed.  Scarred for life.

But it’s a life with sunflowers, so it can’t be all bad.

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