Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Beyond simply a sunflower September 27, 2022

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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A paper sunflower dangles from the ceiling in a space at the Owatonna Arts Center. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

YELLOW, TALL AND DRAMATIC, the sunflower exudes strength and happiness. I love this flower, so prevalent now in the Minnesota landscape.

Paper sunflowers add a sunny element to an already sun-drenched seating and exhibit area at the Owatonna Arts Center. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

But this year especially, this strong, simple, sunny flower symbolizes much more than the end of the growing season, the ripening of crops, the transition into autumn. The sunflower, as we’ve come to learn this year, is the national flower of Ukraine, the symbol of peace.

In historic downtown Faribault, sunflowers crafted from milk jugs brighten the window of Fashions on Central, a women’s clothing and accessories shop operated by the Faribault Senior Center. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo September 2022)

Every time I see a sunflower now, I think of the people of Ukraine and the war that still rages there. I remember watching, in the first days of the Russian invasion, media footage of people fleeing the country, people who looked very much like the average Minnesotan. And I thought, this could be us, this could be me.

Sunflowers flourish on a fence panel by a community garden plot in Madison, Wisconsin. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2020)

As the war goes on and on, it is easy to move onto the next headline, to forget about the horrors, the atrocities, the death, the destruction and displacement happening in Ukraine. But then I see a sunflower and I am once again reminded of the suffering in Ukraine, of the elusiveness of peace.

I photographed these sunflowers last autumn at Apple Creek Orchard, rural Faribault. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo October 2021)

Here in Minnesota, sunflower fields draw families into mazes under bold blue autumn skies. It’s all about the experience and making memories and photo ops among sunny flowers. Thoughts are far from Ukraine in those moments. But even then, in imagining the scene, I see yellow and blue, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. And my thoughts shift back to the people of Ukraine and those who love them, including people right here in Minnesota. In Pittsburgh. Throughout the world.

This LOVE mural in Northfield includes sunflowers among the featured flowers. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2021)

This year, the sunflower has also evolved to symbolize resistance, unity and hope. We’ve certainly seen that happening in Ukraine. Hope is a powerful word, one I’ve latched onto through challenging times. Hope infuses strength. And hope grows sunflowers that rise tall and dramatic in the landscape, their sunny heads turning toward the light of peace.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling