In 2001 I learned to love sunflowers more profoundly than I ever had. Their sunny faces had always delighted me. I’d driven across the Midwest and watched whole fields of them turning their faces toward the sun. But I hadn’t know they offered gifts beyond seeds and colour.
Then I was hired to coordinate a project called HEAL: Healthy Eating and Active Living in Northern BC. We gathered a handful of people from communities that stretched from 100 Mile House to the Yukon border, from the sea to Alberta. In a decommissioned military barrack west of Prince George, we forged a common vision that would guide the fledgling project.
A woman to my left doodled the whole time. What April drew were bright, sunny sunflowers. Tess Healy, who was co-facilitating the meeting with me, saw them and knew. They were the right logo for HEAL.
Turns out the sunny native plants not only offer us seeds for food and oil. Every part of the plant is a gift. Birds love their seeds. So do cows, sheep and pigs. Seeds, flowers, leaves and roots all have medicinal properties. Stalks provide fiber.
That would be enough to gladden our hearts. But these sun-catching plants also willingly clean up after us. Their roots draw heavy metals and arsenic out of polluted soil. Some contaminants they break down. Others they absorb. They even clean up uranium.
That’s why sunflowers were used for “phytoremediation” after the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl.
Now the people of Japan are being asked to plant sunflowers and send the seeds to Fukushima Prefecture. The hope is to create a maze of flowers so thickly planted they'll be seen from space. The project sounds like Don Quixote’s tilting at windmills. After all, although sunflowers draw contamination from the soil, the plants themselves are then hazardous waste.
Still, planting the flowers is a symbol of hope for the country so profoundly wounded by a nuclear power catastrophe.
Project leader Shinji Handa was quoted in The Independent as saying, “This is different from donations because people will grow the flowers, and a mother can tell her children that it is like an act of prayer for the reconstruction of the northeast.”
A seed as prayer. This gives me hope.