Sun Follower

On the symbiotic relationship between humans and sunflowers



Down the road from my house is a nursery that cultivates sunflowers. I stopped nearby to ponder the hundreds of them, all aligned with the 3:00pm sun in the western sky. They stood like monks at their afternoon psalms, all transfixed by that scintillating altar monstrance representing the Son of God.

I walked closer to admire those one-eyed, six-foot living creatures. Their busy caretaker happened to be working nearby, tending irrigation lines. He stood up to greet me.

“Can I help you?” he asked, stuffing pliers into his work belt. He was in his late sixties with a short grey beard. He removed his wide-brimmed hat, revealing a wrinkled, tanned complexion. “I’m Jim, owner of this acreage.”

“Glad to meet you. I’m Richard, amazed by your sunflowers, all facing the sun.”

“And you should be for other reasons, too. Did you know the Incan and Aztec Indians worshiped this heliotrope in temple ceremonies because it was vital to their survival? The Spanish explorers in the 1500s introduced sunflowers to Europe, and Russians became major cultivators for its valuable seed oil.

“Let me introduce you to their amazing nucleus up close.” He led the way to a nearby edge of the field where I studied the plant’s “eye.”

“Note the swirling geometric pattern of its kernels, with that same Fibonacci helix found in sea shells, roses, and galaxies. Mathematical genius designed and engineered this botanical masterpiece.”

“You sound like you have a math or science background.”

“I taught math and botany in college for many years. Retired, then I resorted to their cultivation. I fell in love with these heliotropes. The more I research them, the deeper my adoration and respect for our Creator.

Behold,  I have given you every plant bearing seed on the face of the earth and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food (Genesis 1:29).

“For example, these seeds are its retinal cells, rich in zinc and life-giving nutrients with 20 grams of high quality protein in a half cup. But pluck out these seeds and you’ll render the plant blind, as well as sterile.

“So the plants can follow the sun only with all their seeds in tact: that’s phenomenal!”

“Here’s the kicker. Every nugget inside their striped husks can help us maintain good eyesight, because eating them decreases the risk of macular degeneration and cataracts. That’s not all: eating sunflower seeds can increase human sperm count and motility. For that reason, during the reign of Peter the Great, the Russian Orthodox Church banned consuming them during Lent.”

“Sounds like a bizarre symbiotic relationship between humans and sunflowers.”

Jim studied my awestruck facial expression and said, “It gets even more curious.”

“Why do I get the feeling there’s lots more you’re about to tell me?”

“I could talk all day long about these wonderful plants. Back in 1986, Chernobyl had that major nuclear disaster leaving millions of Ukrainians homeless. Thousands died of cancer, and the surrounding area was abandoned as a radioactive wasteland. Sunflowers are known to decontaminate radioactive material and were planted there. Three years later, the forest wildlife is thriving with bears, wolves, and birds, even more than before.

“Then in 2011, the tsunami off Japan caused radioactive wastewater to spill into the region all around Fukushima. Some 80,000 people had to move away. Again, sunflowers to the rescue, planted everywhere to draw out the toxicity. Later, the toxic plants were taken to nuclear dumps. Within three years, all those farm lands, spoiled by nuclear wastewater, were cleaned up, so food crops could be safely grown again.”

Transfixed by Jim’s report, I gazed upon sunflowers that were no longer just unusual plants. They had somehow become potential sacrificial saviors of the human race in the event of total nuclear war. God’s creatures would assist and enhance one another’s survival, and life would go on.

I noticed Jim wearing a mischievous grin, and I snapped out of my short reverie.

“I have to ask, how does a sunflower turn its head, to track the sun, without muscles?”

“Oh, that’s simple. One side lengthens, causing the flower’s head to slowly bend to the west during the day. At night, genes activate cell growth on the other side of the stem, so its head swings back facing east, to greet the dawning sun. No muscles, just an ingenious botanical mechanism.”

Thanking him for this close encounter with nature, I wished him well in his retirement and went my way. There seemed to be more than meets the eye in this strange symbiosis between man and plant — perhaps a deeper spiritual dimension, for the Bible mentions seeds 55 times.

What if the words of God in the Gospel are like those sunflower seeds, but healing spiritual blindness instead, so that mankind can follow and emulate the Son of God from dawn to dusk?


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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