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Sunflowers extend sense of summer in Southeast

by: Rita A. Leonard, A whimsical sunflower made of car parts and shovels is on display at S.E. 46th and Holgate Boulevard.

With the long hot days of summer behind us, and autumn firmly entrenched, spectacular sunflowers in Inner Southeast remind us of the season just past, while being a popular symbol of fall harvest. The large, golden-crowned seed heads contain hundreds of seeds in artful spiral patterns.

Sunflowers are more than merely picturesque--providing nutritious food for man and beast, and they are also an important source of oil for cooking and fuel. Because of their spectacular growth and colors, the Incas revered the flower as a symbol of their Sun God, and many local gardeners also ornament their homes with sunflower symbols.

The books tell us that the common sunflower, 'Helianthus annuus', has two types of flowers. The bright, petal-like 'ray florets' are sterile, while the smaller, central 'disk florets' produce the seeds that we use for snacks and oils. The larger, striped seeds are the ones most often consumed by humans, while the smaller, darker seeds contain more oil, and are more frequently used for bird food.

Sunflowers are native to North America, ranging from Canada to Mexico. They prefer full sun, and thrive in dry, open areas as well as gardens. The sunflower face is known to follow the path of the sun from east to west throughout the day, and is the source of several legends.

Sunflowers are an important agricultural crop in the U.S., and now in Russia and Argentina as well. In addition to food and oil, sunflowers also produce latex and food for livestock. Native Americans also used sunflowers for flour, dye, hair oil, and to create a hot beverage similar to coffee.

Among the many sunflower symbols in our neighborhood are several made with the use of welding equipment.

A garden gate across the street from the Llewellyn School playground in Westmoreland features a spray of sunflower designs created by Glen Brunger, Westmoreland wine maker. An unusual sunflower head made from automobile scrap can be seen at S.E. 46th and Holgate Boulevard. The 'ray petals' are made of a variety of shovel heads, fastened in a crown around a wheel.

David Ibbotson and his wife, Helen Johnson, display several unusual metal sunflower sculptures as a garden border to their home on S.E. 56th and Knight Street. 'The flower center on this one,' says Ibbotson, 'Was inspired by a piece from a dryer door. The petals and leaves are cut-up parts from a hot water heater.'

Ibbotson created the other sunflower shapes by cutting strips down the sides of coffee cans and flattening them. Helen decorated the flattened sunflowers with paint and glass buttons, and David welded them onto 'stems' of rebar, to form a figure they call 'the dancing man'. Playful local gardeners create a surprising variety of ornaments for their gardens. Everyone seems to appreciate a touch of whimsy.