Flower Power

Until last month, your strongest association with the sunflower might have been Van Gogh, who painted their exuberant brightness in Provence. I had no idea it was Ukraine’s national flower, did you?

These days, the sunflower has become a symbol of resistance for Ukrainians, their allies, and their supporters. In London, sunflowers line barricades at the Russian embassy. Yard signs decorated with sunflowers and the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag adorn yards in the US. Protesters worldwide hold them in their hands, wear them in their lapels, or pin them to their clothes.

How a national flower became a symbol of protest

(Adapted from an article on salon.com)

A person holds sunflowers and a Ukrainian flag as members of the Ukrainian community protest at Place du Canada in Montreal, Quebec, on February 27, 2022. - Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have fled their country since Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed a full-scale invasion on Thursday. (ANDREJ IVANOV/AFP via Getty Images)

Sunflowers are widely adored in Ukraine, but the newfound meaning behind them arose after a viral video showcased the sheer courage of one Ukrainian civilian.

The origins of sunflowers in Ukraine

Sunflowers were cultivated in North America around 3000 BC and introduced to Eastern Europe around the 1500s. Tsar Peter the Great is credited for the popular cultivation of the plant in the 18th century, according to the National Sunflower Association. The “sunny” cultivars found a new home in Ukraine and flourished in the country’s hot-dry climate and nutrient-dense soil.

In folklore, the flowers were believed to protect “the wearer against evil spirits, bad fortune, and illness,” according to the Russian Flora Blog.  

The sunflower became further embedded in Ukraine’s identity when the Church didn’t ban its oil for Lent. During the early 19th century, sunflowers were mass-produced across the country, primarily for consumption. Sunflower seeds fried in oil and coated with salt were — and still are — a popular snack along with halwa, a soft confection made with the plant’s seed and oil.

Others tout the flowers’ scientific properties. According to the Athens Science Observer, sunflowers are “a hyperaccumulator of dangerous heavy metals,” which means they can draw out metal toxins from the soil and clear up environmental contamination. Shortly after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, sunflowers were widely grown to extract cesium-137 and strontium-90, the two most common toxins found at the site. 

In 1996, top defense officials from the U.S., Russia, and Ukraine scattered sunflower seeds in a field at the Pervomaysk missile base in southern Ukraine to mark the country’s complete nuclear disarmament. 

“It is altogether fitting that we plant sunflowers here at Pervomaysk to symbolize the hope we all feel at seeing the sun shine through again,” said Defense Secretary William J. Perry that day.

Seeds to a gunfight: that viral video

On Feb. 24, sunflowers entered the world’s consciousness thanks to a video first posted by Ukraine World. In the brief clip, a Ukrainian woman is seen challenging a heavily armed Russian soldier, insisting he pocket a handful of sunflower seeds so that they’ll grow when he’s killed on Ukrainian terrain. 

According to translations provided by BBC News, the woman is told to go away after she asked the soldier who he was. She doesn’t stop there however and asks the soldier if he is Russian, to which he replies with a simple “yes.”

“So what the f**k are you doing here?” she asks furiously. The soldier dismisses her question once again.

“You are occupants, you are fascists!” she says. “What the f**k are you doing on our land with all these guns? Take these seeds and put them in your pockets, so at least sunflowers will grow when you all lie down here.”

The soldier warns her to not escalate the situation.

“What situation? Guys, guys. Put the sunflower seeds in your pockets, please,” she repeated. “You will lie down here with the seeds. You came to my land. Do you understand? You are occupiers. You are enemies. And from this moment, you are cursed. I’m telling you.”

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