[edited repost from 2002]
There is in an obscure Emblem Book by one Henry Hawkins, dated 1633, a tribute to one of the garden's great flowers:
The honour of our Gardens, and the miracle of flowers at this day, is the Heliotropion or Flower of the Sun; be it for the height of its stem, approaching to the heavens some cubits high: or beautie of the flower, being as big as a man's head, with a faire ruff on the neck; or, for the number of the leaves, or yellow, vying with the marigold, or, which is more, for al the qualities, nature, and properties of the Flower, which is to wheel about with the Sun; there being no Needle, that more punctually regards the Poles, then doth this Flower the glorious Sun.In the spring, Beloved set aside the packets of sunflower seeds that had accumulated, and announced that she would build Sunflower Houses.
"What are those?" asked Risa.
"They are sunflowers planted in a circle, so that children can play in the middle of them in high summer, and make believe that they are houses. It's an old tradition."
Risa went to her books to look this up. She didn't find any sunflower houses, but a favorite writer, the gentle Sharon Lovejoy, tells of Hollyhock Houses, which seems to be the same idea. She plants hollyhocks in a circle, and then when they are tall, ties them together to form the rafters of a kind of tipi.
Beloved took her packets to the greenhouse, filled three flats of two-inch pots with potting soil, and poked one seed down a bit over a quarter of an inch into each one, humming a song about Mistress Mary.
The long rains went on, and Risa's measured circle of elephant garlic came up, like a green and pungent Fairy Ring. She explained how this would work.
"This is a circular garden; the rainbird in the middle will reach exactly to the garlic, all the way round, and this gap here is the entrance. Plant your tall things near the perimeter, and your short things, like squash vines near the middle, so that nothing is in any thing else's rain shadow."
"Okay. And where do the sunflower houses go?"
"What sunflower houses?"
Patiently she explained again.
Risa furrowed her brows. "Won't some of them keep the water off the rest? I was kind of envisioning a row, sort of all the way or half way round, then corn further in, then tomatoes, like a sort of staircase."
"I want sunflower houses."
"Umm, okay, how about evenly spaced, though, around the perimeter?"
"Sure, I'll put one here, and here, and here, and here..."
It was to be the Year of the Sunflower.
For in the morning it beholdes his rising; in his journey, attends upon him; and eyeth him stil, wheresoever he goes; nor ever leaves following him, til he sink downe over head and eares in Tethis's bed, when not being able to behold him anie longer she droops and languishes, til he arise: and then followes him againe to his old lodging, as constantly as ever; with him it riseth, with him it falles, and with him riseth againe.The sunflowers did not appear only in the circle garden. Another sunflower house came up in the hilltop garden, menacing the lettuce and onion beds. And there were genetically engineered sunnies in all the beds around the house; tiny ones, and full sized ones that stood on short thick stems, as if someone had beheaded some giant and left the trophy by the city walls.
Many of these were along the east side of the house, and followed the sun until midday, then continued staring straight up, as though wondering what had become of their lord and master. Eventually they became too heavy with seed for this myopia, and drooped daylong, no longer befriended of bees but increasingly frequented by birds.
At first we admired their sunny looks among the poppies, zinnias, marigolds and such, but, later, in seed time, their ungainliness seemed to us to class with the bachelor buttons, the feathery cosmos, and the larkspurs, and we pretended not to see them.
Nature hath done wel in not affording it anie odour at al; for with so much beautie and admirable singularities, had there been odour infused therinto, and the sweetnesse of odoriferous flowers withal, even men, who are now half mad in adoring the same for its excellent guifts, would then have been stark mad indeed, with doting upon it.Sunflowers are difficult to ignore.
On a hot day in August, Risa went to the circular garden to look (vain hope) for a reddening blush on the hundreds of green tomatoes, and as she sloped along, parting branches, ran headlong into a massive flower head, dangling on a stem bent double with the weight, and a good eighteen inches across. Such a plant demands attention, and will bludgeon you if it doesn't get it.
She growled and pushed it away, and it came swinging insistently back across her path. Involuntarily her eye followed the stem into the thicket from whence it had sprung. Oh, yes! Sunflower houses. Well, there's such a thing here, she supposed, except it's awfully weedy in there; no child has had a go this year. She went looking for Daughter.
But Nature, it seems, when first she framed a pattern for the rest, not being throughly resolved, what to make it, tree or flower, having brought her workmanship almost unto the top, after a litle pause perhaps, at al adventure put a flower upon it, and so for haste, forgot to put the Musks into it. Wherupon, to countervaile her neglect heerin, the benigne Sol, of meer regard and true compassion, graced her by his frequent and assiduous lookes with those golden rayes it hath. And as the Sun shewes himself to be enamoured with her, she, as reason would, is no lesse taken with his beautie, and by her wil (if by looks we may guesse of the wil) would faine be with him. But like an Estritch, with its leaves as wings, it makes unprofitable offers, to mount up unto him, and to dwel with him; but being tyed by the root, it doth but offer, and no more.Daughter at first was dubious. She had after all, recently seen Little Shop of Horrors. But mothers are still to be humored, until one reaches a certain age. Risa rummaged about in the garage and came up with a couple of large scraps of carpet. By throwing one onto the grassy floor of the Sunflower House, she was able to make it instantly homey -- and Daughter took over from there.
"I'll be right back," she said, and before Risa knew it, my weeding was over for the day. Daughter returned with a wagonload of dolls.
"You move into that one over there...and you'll be new in the neighborhood...and we'll come over and see you -- oops, not enough room -- so you come and see us, and we'll invite you in to tea."
In this fashion are afternoons of Important Grownup Work lost forever.
It is surprisingly cool in the Sunflower House, while the sun's rays are broiling the homeyard only inches away, and shimmering the landscape near and far. One can play for a long time in such a space, and forget the approach of evening. When they gathered their tea things to retreat to their night home, they found the shadows long and the air golden, and a massive flock of Canada geese skimmed over low, low enough for Daughter to hear the wind their wings made, heading for the river and the gleaning of the wheat fields there.
Beloved met them at the door, and she, being the artist that she is, knew not to break the wondering silence. She only smiled to see that the web of Sunflower Houses she had woven months before had made its catch.
It's thus an old tradition becomes a new one.
It is like the Scepter which the Paynims attribute to their Deitie, that beares an Eye on the top; while this flower is nothing els but an Eye, set on the point of its stem; not to regard the affayres of Mortals so much, as to eye the immortal Sunne with its whole propension; the middle of which flower, where the seed is, as the white of the eye, is like a Turkie-carpet, or some finer cloth wrought with curious needle-work, which is al she hath to entertaine her Paramour.Friends came, from far away, to visit. Adults sat round in the shade of the east front, stirring cups. The screen door banged. Daughter and Daughter's friend and the dolls headed for the garden.
We will remember the Meteor Night in winter, when the leaden clouds, heavy with Pacific rain, shut out Orion and his gleaming belt. We will remember the tomatoes, Better Boy, Cherry, Brandywine, and Golden Jubilee, when their poor cousin, the frozen tomato soup, is brought from the freezer to thaw. But most of all, as the huge seed heads are plunked, face up, in the pasture to gladden the hearts of the poultry (and the shivering juncos and chickadees), we will remember the Sunflower Houses.