How The Sunflower Became My Secret to International Relations

How it Bloomed

If you’re wondering why it’s the sunflower project, no, it’s not just because they are bright, pretty and look good on Instagram. The sunflower has gone on quite the world journey— they have even helped communities with the effects of nuclear waste. However, before we dig into more sunflower history, I’ll quote Julie Andrews from the Sound of Music: let’s start from the very beginning.

My fascination with sunflowers began over the last year by reading The Sunflower by St. John of Tobolsk (translated by my talented cousin), which talks about following your God-given intuition just as the sunflower follows the sun. This seemed to me like real optimism, not the fluffy kind you see on a hallmark card. Optimism needs adversity to be authentic. Why? Because the sunflower doesn’t ignore dirt, it uses the roots to suck up the nutrients from the dirt and look up at the sun. The roots find whatever nutrients they can, hostile though they might be. They make even the harshest environments habitable. They bear the brunt of so much, and yet bloom with brilliance.

Thus, it turns out that sunflowers have even more to teach us about life. We can look at the dirt in our lives as an opportunity to develop a brighter, more textured perspective. With growing tensions between my homeland and my heritage, Russia and America, I started to research the symbolism and relevance of sunflowers in both cultures, hoping to find a diplomatic and meaningful connection between both. Luckily, I found exactly that.

Sunflowers & Politics

Imagine three very important men standing on a defense missile field in suits,strategizing. Now imagine them with sunflowers. These three men are from Russia, America, and Ukraine and are planting sunflowers to stop nuclear war.

 Twenty three years ago, three defense chiefs stood on one of the two main nuclear defense missile fields in Pervomaysk, Ukraine. Sunflowers, a symbol of hope and optimism, are planted to dispel the cloud of fear that surrounds nuclear threat. The American defense chief, with true American Disney-esque optimism, says, “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.” This political statement, taking place on a field, with a focus on the sunflower, seems much unlike the usual political gatherings in sterile buildings with podiums.

Coincidentally, scientists have discovered that sunflowers have the strange ability to detoxify soil even in the wake of nuclear events, properties which helped Ukrainians restore agriculture in the areas surrounding Chernobyl after the tragic meltdown in 1986. On the other side of the world, the Japanese took the advice of one Buddhist monk to plant sunflowers on the barren hillsides around Fukishima, cleaning the soil and decorating it with their vibrant petals.

Sunflowers & Gastronomy

Through some basic research, I found that sunflowers are one of the few foods indigenous to the continental United States, along with squash and blueberries. After America was colonized, settlers stopped using the sunflower, not knowing what to do with it, but explorers began to spread the seeds around Europe. Think of Van Gogh, for example, for whom the flower became a muse of sorts. Without the development of trade between the old and new worlds, Van Gogh would not have produced his famous painting of sunflowers.

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

After a few years of cultivation and circulating western Europe, the sunflower seed found Russia. Orthodox Russians, following the strict mostly vegan diet of Great Lent, began to use sunflower seeds for their cooking oil, as opposed to animal fat. Eventually, Stalin-era factories found ways to produce 50 percent more oil from the seeds, making them even more lucrative crops. Sunflower seeds have maintained their popularity and are now a staple in Russian cuisine as a nutritious snack, and for cooking oil.

If Russians had not preserved the use of these flowers, the US would not have found them again for their beloved potato chip production, when companies looked for a healthier alternative for oil. Thanks to movements like the South Beach Diet, sunflower oil came back to the states with full fervor. The sunflower oil market would have not achieved this point without the Russian preservation of the plant.

The Sunflower Project

What I found was that the sunflower was much like me- born on American soil, cared for by Russians, and striving to transform negativity into something bright. Sunflowers, along with their natural beauty and inherent brightness serve as a symbol of peace, and in my opinion- transformative resilience. They grow well amongst each other, in communities, perfectly fitting the goal of community resilience development. In the case of radiation, they have transformed toxicity into beauty. They have been culinary diplomats and sources of inspiration for the greatest artists. They are present here on this blog as examples of resilience diplomacy, standards of beauty and examples of transformative ideals.

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