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Sunflowers: Meaning and Symbolism

“She turns, always, towards the sun,” says the ancient Roman poet Ovid, “though her roots hold her fast, and, altered, loves unaltered.”

These beautiful lines come to us from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where Ovid tells the story of the nymph Clytie, who becomes infatuated by the sun god (Helios, in Greek myth). When he spurns her, she pines, sitting on the ground and turning her face towards him as he moves through the sky.

Ovid says that “her limbs clung to the soil, and that her ghastly pallor changed part of her appearance to that of a bloodless plant.”

In the myth, she’s transformed into a heliotrope, not a sunflower. After the sunflower (Helianthus annuus) was introduced to Europe in the 16th century, however, sunflowers became incredibly popular there, and “sunflower” became the more common translation.

If you also appreciate these sunny, cheerful flowers, you may have wondered what they symbolize, and what meanings humans have given them throughout history. The sunflower’s meaning ranges across times and cultures, but we’ll give you a quick snapshot here.

What Do Sunflowers Mean? What Do They Symbolize?

In cultures that harken back to Greek and Roman myths, sunflowers symbolize adoration, as well as devotion and loyalty. European cultures tend to specifically identify the sunflower with faithfulness to the Christian God.

Sometimes, the sunflower symbolized loyalty to a particular monarch. Van Dyck’s Self-Portrait with a Sunflower, for example, features the artist facing an extraordinarily large flower that symbolizes his loyalty to King Charles I.

In China, Chairman Mao made use of the sunflower, depicting himself in communist propaganda as the sun and people facing him as a field of sunflowers.

Many Indigenous cultures see sunflowers as a symbol of plenty. Sunflowers are native to the Americas, where they’ve been cultivated by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years. They were an important source of food, as well as dyes and medicines.

A 2008 research paper on sunflowers in pre-conquest Mexico explains that the Aztecs used sunflowers to represent shields in ceremonies. Authors David Lentz et al. state that the sunflower was commonly associated with war (which the Aztecs loved), and possibly associated with the victory of the sun over the powers of night.

More recently, the sunflower has gained a reputation as a flower of peace. In 1996, Ukrainian, Russian and American officials scattered sunflower seeds on the site of a former nuclear silo to celebrate the complete removal of the Ukraine’s stock of nuclear warheads.

What Is the Spiritual Meaning of a Sunflower?

As you might expect, sunflowers carry spiritual meanings related to sun worship. In central Mexico, the sunflower was connected with Huitzilopochtli, an Aztec sun god who was also the god of war.

Lentz et al. mention rituals where sunflowers were offered to Huitzilopochtli at dawn. In their research, they spoke to Nahua people (the Nahua are descended from the Aztecs) who told them the flower is still used “as an ornament for the church or as a funerary offering in the cemetery.”

Author Elizabeth Silverthorne states that the Incans used the sunflower to represent their sun god, while Native Americans placed sunflower seeds on top of graves to give the dead strength and endurance on the road to the afterlife.

Modern Christians have turned the classical association of the heliotrope with Apollo into an association between the sunflower and God. The sunflower has come to represent the faithful, following a Christian path throughout their lives.

Many artists throughout history have given sunflowers unique spiritual meanings in their works. The great English poet William Blake associated the sunflower with a yearning for heaven in his poem “Ah, Sun-flower,” although the connection is complex, to say the least. Vincent Van Gogh associated sunflowers with gratitude.

In his “Sunflower Sutra,” American poet Allen Ginsberg looks to a battered and grim-looking sunflower as (in part) a representation of spiritual transcendence in the modern world; of the way humans can grow into beautiful beings, even in the midst of industrial wastelands.

Why Is a Sunflower Yellow?

field of sunflowers - sunflowers meaning and symbolism

Like any flower, sunflowers get their colour from pigments called anthocyanins and carotenoids. Beta carotene is the actual pigment that creates the sunflower’s bright, cheerful yellow. Anthocyanins produce the less common sunflower colours like reds, maroons and other darker colours.

That said, pigments alone don’t account for a flower’s colour, says the Library of Congress. Colour also has to do with the environment a flower grows in. The LoC explains that light, climate, temperature and soil conditions also affect a flower’s colour. If the plant suffers stress, like drought, that can actually make the blooms less vivid.

So while genetics determines the colour a flower will be, how bright it will be depends in part on how well a flower is cared for. Which also seems symbolic, in a way.

Sunflower Meaning in Love

The sunflower hasn’t traditionally been thought of as a romantic flower. Historically, its romantic meanings are actually pretty underwhelming. In her work A Victorian Flower Dictionary, Mandy Kirby says the Victorians gave the sunflower an association with false riches.

She traces the idea back to early Spanish colonists, who, on encountering sunflowers for the first time, were disappointed that the flowers looked like gold but turned out not to be. Kirby states that while 19th-century avant-garde aesthetes became enamored of the sunflower, ordinary Victorians felt it was too “gaudy” and showy.

Nowadays, of course, sunflowers are a popular choice for wedding bouquets and centerpieces. With their cheerful colours and association with the sun, people use them to represent happiness and optimism. They can also represent faithfulness and adoration, as well as longevity.

Sunflowers are a bold and striking flower, which for some couples perfectly encapsulates their relationship. They’re considered a laid-back, rustic choice, so for a crunchy, outdoorsy couple, or a couple who identifies with a country lifestyle, sunflowers can symbolize that aspect of their marriage.

If you’re giving flowers to a romantic interest, you could think of sunflowers as a gift meant to brighten their day, or to communicate that you’re happy you’re with them. They can symbolize your devotion or represent the way you think about your relationship.

Remember—just because old-timey people didn’t think the sunflower was romantic doesn’t mean that they were right or that it can’t be.

Red Sunflowers Meaning (What Do Sunflowers Stand For?)

While there is a red sunflower native to Mexico and Central America (Tithonia rotundifolia), the red sunflowers we most commonly think of are varieties of Helianthus annuus, all of which are recent additions to the sunflower family.

In fact, red sunflowers are all descended from the same mutant plant, which was discovered in 1910 by biologist Wilmatte Cockerell in a roadside group of sunflowers across the street from her Boulder, Colorado home. She and her naturalist husband dug it up and carefully developed the first commercially available red sunflower seeds.

Red sunflowers, being a relatively recent phenomenon, don’t have the same presence in art and myth as the iconic yellow bloom. They therefore don’t have a traditional set of qualities associated with them, although the internet is trying to give them one.

According to various internet sources, red sunflowers symbolize strength, positivity, passion, energy, good luck and prosperity.

Symbolism is ultimately about what resonates with people, and since symbols change meanings as time goes on, there’s no reason to restrict yourself to the meanings that other people have given a flower. The personal things you associate with a sunflower are also part of a sunflower’s meaning, so enjoy it for what it means to you.

Feature image: Skyler Ewing; Image 1: Susanne Jutzeler

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