(First published in our winter 2013 edition, feature "A Symbolic State." It's been updated to the current date)
A cultural symbol throughout the ages—of faith, longevity, healing, happiness and good luck—the sunflower traces its roots to ancient Mexico and the southeastern United States. More than 3,000 years ago, American Indians utilized the native sunflower for food; over the centuries, the seeds were cultivated and the modern, oil-rich sunflower emerged.
In 1903, Kansas declared itself the “Sunflower State,” naming the wild native plant as its official flower. The bright, sun-seeking helianthus variety of the sunflower—prominent in historic Kansas as an enduring symbol of the state’s wide and vast open spaces—speaks of a life-giving past, a present steeped in pride and a golden future. Although there are more than 60 species of sunflowers, the Kansas native variety can grow to 15 feet tall with heads up to 2 feet in diameter. A single flower can produce more than 1,000 seeds that are rich in protein and yield a high-quality vegetable oil valued for many health benefits.
Within the Sunflower State is the self-proclaimed Sunflower City of Goodland, Kansas, in Sherman County. Diminutive in population— somewhere around 5,000 sunflower-loving souls—but abundant in production of the plant, Goodland boasts more than 50,000 acres of the dazzling crop and hosts the Sunflower Celebration each August. The 6-foot-tall yellow beauties are at their height of glory in late summer, when tourists migrate to Goodland for sunflower reflection of all types.
Although sunflower fields aren’t forever, visitors can still get their fix even in the dormant season when Goodland’s fields are bereft of their crop. Canadian artist Cameron Cross was commissioned to produce a giant, 24-foot-by 32-foot reproduction of Vincent van
Gogh’s Three Sunflowers in a Vase. Part of a series called the Big Easel Project, the work, homage to the area’s sunflower industry, was dedicated in 2001. It towers 76 feet on a steel easel along U.S. Highway 24 and is visible from Interstate 70.