Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What Happened to the Sunflowers

What happens to a very tall sunflower when you bite its head off? It grows lots of little new ones.
A couple of sunflowers planted themselves in the vegetable garden this year. They looked good there, so I left them, and one in particular grew very tall and picturesque with classic yellow-petaled, sun-like seed heads. The squirrel first tried climbing up the smaller of the two, perhaps to get at the seeds in its fat round flower-head – do squirrels even know about sunflower seeds? (I’m not a follower of rodents.) I found its big fat seed head detached and lying on the ground after the deed.
Next time I saw the crime take place, from indoors. The squirrel climbs the taller sunflower stalk, then appears to fall off when the stalk finally collapses under his weight. I knew at that moment the flower head was minced meat. Later in the day when I looked at the damage, the fat, round flower head was nowhere in sight. He may have dragged it off to one of his favorite chewing sites, like the arm of one our chairs, and minced it into plant mush there. The decapitated stalk was still standing, though now clearly missing something.
Though they looked like a crime scene, I left the bare flower stalks in the garden as a memorial to sunflower ground zero. A few weeks later I saw a curious round bulb forming on the smaller of the two stalks, and a while after that was surprised to see it morph into a classic round – but very small – sunflower.
A little later, the tall stalk began forming not one, but about eight new bright-yellow, little round sunflowers at various points in its upper story. Their little yellow petals catch the sun. Will they make new seeds that ripen before winter? I don’t know, and suspect it’s beside the point.
How much smarter are plants than people. Somebody bides their head off and they just go to plan B. Instead of one big one sitting-duck head, a bunch of little ones.
The sunflower’s strategy is mirrored of course by other plants. After I pick the first big broccoli seedhead (the part you eat) off the main stem, the plant diversifies. New slender stems, new small offerings of edible broccoli. With luck, the plant keeps producing these through November. Crop your petunia’s first bloom-bearing stems – so they tell you – two-thirds the way back down the stem for a thicker, better, more flowerful plant. (Personally, I can never bear to do this.)
When people get their heads bitten off, on the other hand, we go straight to re-thinking the meaning of life and brooding. Which may not be the best state of mind in which to ask the big questions. A better approach to thinking about the meaning of life would probably be some disciplined approach such as meditation, religious practice, keeping a journal, or holding a focused philosophical conversation with a friend.
A better approach to getting your head bit off might be to spread your energy in a half dozen useful ways – whatever needs doing, really; there’s always something – and store up some seeds while you’re at it for the long, cold winter.
You probably had too big a head, anyway.