Why Do Sunflowers Have Necks?

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Why do sunflowers have necks? The little guy on the left has a tired neck.

The Annual Day of the Sunflower (Helianthus Annuus) at the Woodlake Botanical Gardens started at 7:00 am to compensate for the July 1st heat in California’s Central Valley.

Journey Through the Garden With Me

As the temperature soared towards the 102-degree mark, I wished I’d arrived before 8:30 am. Even the presence of Bravo Lake on the other side of the chain link fence did not slow down the upward march of the thermometer bubble.

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One mile walk through Woodlake Botanical Gardens. I’m walking along Bravo Lake, but you can’t see it. Maybe if I was a sunflower and could stretch my neck up high enough I could see the water.

Before I reached the wall of the sunflowers, sweat already poured into my eyes washing away makeup. A stinging reminder that I had forgotten to wear the bandana Olga Jimenez gave me dripped down my forehead.

sunflowersNormally I walk the mile-long path in the 14-acre gardens. Olga Jimenez drove up pulling what looked like a hay wagon. She smiled up at me from her shady seat in the utility vehicle.

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Olga Jimenez drives visitors around the park

“Hop in! You look hot already.”

Before I could dribble all over her All-Terrain-Vehicle, Olga reached into her magic stash of cures and wound a pink and white bandana into a long cord.

“Lean over,” she said and wrapped the cord under my bangs, behind my ears and tied it under my hair in the back of my head. This gringa (white woman) avoided the camera but welcomed the relief in spite of how my bangs stood out at all angles. There are some advantages to carrying the camera and being old enough that you don’t care if you are not in every picture!

All Aboard the Sunflower Train

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Sunflowers were not the only beauties displaying their colors at the Day of the Sunflower.

“I want to drive you to the end of the pathway so you can take pictures of the sunflowers going the other way. Did you know that sunflowers turn their heads?”

She kept talking like she hadn’t just dropped a bombshell of information. I never saw a flower that turned its head. I’ve seen them fold up at night.

sunflowers“First, we’re driving up through the zinnias. I’ll stop,” Olga turned and told the rest of the passengers.

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Woodlake Botanical Garden Founders

Olga and her husband, Manuel have planted gardens all their lives. He specialized in row crops at UC Davis and became a farm specialist for the University of California Davis for many years.

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A beautiful row of cabbage

In addition to sunflowers, the Woodlake Botanical Gardens grows many food crops from corn, tomatoes, and artichokes to apple, pear, peach, fig and banana trees. Only volunteers work in the garden. Most of them are students.

sunflowersOn the way back to the start of the Sunflower Walk, my friend Monica approached.

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Monica Pizura of Wicky-Up Ranch Bed and Breakfast

Cooled down from the bandana, I gave up my shady spot in the front seat and hopped on the hay cart to take unfettered pictures as we drove.

“Hey Monica, “Do you know why sunflowers have necks?” I asked her as she climbed in.

“Is this another one of your lame jokes, Marsha?”

sunflowers“No, Monica. It’s a legitimate question.”

“Ok, so they can stretch them and see over the other plants.”

sunflowers“Good guess, Monica. But no. It’s so they can turn their heads.”

“Really, why do they do that?”

I couldn’t tell her. Maybe I could have Googled it, but I wanted to save what little phone battery life I had left for photographs. As we drove along the walking path, I had a chance to visit with the developers of the Tulare County Treasures website, Shirley, and John.

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Tulare County Treasures members, Shirley and John.

We drove right past rows and rows of sunflowers without stopping.

“You’ll want to take pictures going the other direction, so you don’t have to shoot into the sun,” Olga called back at us as she ambled along going less than three miles an hour.

I could have jumped off and walked along beside the mini-train, but it was fun to sit and visit and dangle my legs as we rolled along. Every once in a while I felt my foot bounce against the wheel.

sunflowers“It’s odd, but the sunflowers do not seem as pretty going this direction,” I said to my new friends.

“They don’t seem very friendly, do they?” Shirley asked.

“No, they don’t.” John agreed. “I wonder why.”

“Maybe they’re shy!” I surmised.

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Hiding behind the blueberries was a grove of peach trees. Some of the group deserted.

Olga stopped the ATV, and we jumped off. Most of us jammed towards the blackberries. The seedy purple berry jettisoned tiny bursts of flavor onto our tongues. A few of the group disappeared.

Blackberries grow in clumps of three. The largest one, the bull, is the prize. So engrossed in the plump blackberry “bulls” I failed to notice that the crowd had moved to the blueberries.

The blueberries fell off the vine into our hands as we tickled their bellies with our fingers. Some of the berries tasted sweet, some a little more tart. Before we left the fruity oasis, some of the party walked back to the wagon train with peach juice dripping off their chins.

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San Joaquin blueberries, I think.

We got to the end of the trail, and she turned the hay wagon around. My face was cool as a cucumber.

“You’re getting pretty brave sitting in the sun back there. How’s that bandana working for you?”

“It’s magic! I need one for my nose, too! Olga, what do you mean, the sunflowers turn their heads?” reminding her that she left me hanging at the start of the path.

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The bees love the sunflowers.

“When sunflowers grow, they face the sun. As the sun changes position during the day, the baby sunflowers turn to face it and follow it 180 degrees. That’s called heliotropism.”

“Helio for the sun,” Monica added.

“And tropism means that a plant or organism turns in response to an outside stimulus,” Olga finished.

sunflowers“It doesn’t look like they’ve moved any since we got here. Sunflowers are still not very friendly.” I said.

“As they get older, their necks get stiff just like ours, and they quit turning. Then they face east,” Olga said.

“Thanks, Olga, I’m feeling a little stiff-necked looking all directions to see all the gorgeous things growing here,” I said.

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How to Use Sunflowers

Almost everyone has eaten roasted sunflower seeds. Did you know you can make sunbutter? It’s similar to peanut butter but better for you.

I haven’t tried it. I hope it’s not like Vegemite. HGTV says you can use it like a jam or even as a substitute for cream in pasta sauces. Some people use it as a dipping sauce.

All you need are four cups of raw seeds, a stove, food processor and some oil (I’d use olive oil) and light seasoning like salt and possibly something sweet like honey. A doctor told me about Truvia, so I use that whenever I could use sugar, at least in amounts under a quarter of a cup.

Don’t buy pre-roasted sunflower seeds. Roast the raw seeds in a skillet for about 2 minutes. Tossing them keeps them from burning. Grind them into a powder for about 10 minutes. They start to turn to oil. Add a sweetener and keep going until the mixture looks like peanut butter. If it is not oily enough, add from one to four tablespoons of olive oil until it reaches the consistency you like.

Be sure to visit these two Photo Challenges for more exciting journeys.

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