Alone with some veritable country French farming élite recently for a long drive though the countryside during peak sunflower season, I took the opportunity to ask something I’ve wanted to know for a long time: Are the sunflowers in the fields really “flowers” to the French mind, or just an agricultural crop?
Whereas we Americans see the fields of sunflowers this time of year as amplified bouquets, the romantic subject of wallpaper and Van Gogh paintings, I suspected that the native French are inured to them as agriculture only, and that any beauty they appreciate in them is much the same as the beauty of a well-built barn, or a field strewn with tight new rolls of hay wrapped in shiny plastic, or the amber waves of wheat ripe to harvest being pulled in with timely haste just before a storm knocks them down, or potatoes set neatly in mounded rows, not a dead leaf among them yet, on account of the right fertilizer.
Is it the same beauty, no more nor less, as the sunflowers have for a farmer even before they set their flowers, and also maybe even less than after they dry, when their blackened heads are permanently withered and bowed with heavy seed?
In midseason they form flowers, technically, yes. But not as decoration – rather as fine work, which even at it’s best is still a function, not a form.
And it was confirmed, once the French agrarian élite even understood what I was talking about. The women led the charge, presumably to put any evident cost-saving measures out of their husbands’ heads regarding anniversaries and Mother’s Day, as they explained to me the difference:
Non non non! These are not bouquets (befuddled laughter), but the source of the tournesol oil, just as wheat is the source of bread and corn is the source of foie gras (by extension, of course). The fields are fields. If you want a rustic bouquet of sunflowers (facial expressions adding, “and why would you want that?”) there are specific varieties more beautiful for that purpose, intended for urban markets and people (not you, surely) who don’t know any better than to bring sunflowers indoors and put them in a vase on a mantle or whatnot (like certain crazed Dutch tourists).
These rugged flowers were not those naive mantle-worthy flowers, but a harvest. One would be better received presenting a useful jug of sunflower oil to these ladies, it seems, than offering an armload of sunflowers fresh from the field. These are working plants, bred for heavy oily seeds, unbeautiful to their farmers and those farmers’ wives except as plenitude and richesse, and decidedly unromantic, too, unless you think of vegetable oil and money as romantic, which is another topic.
The French I have known view grapes on the vine in the same way. While we expats wax pastoral about the ancient glory of local viticulture and the marvel of the vine rows set just so, flashing photo after photo, the French are checking the sap levels and inspecting the leaftips for mold, muttering about Spanish imports and the cost of baling twine.
I suspected as much of the sunflowers, and having it verified at the source, I felt blessed right then to be living in a strange land where I am uniquely privileged to see wonderment and beauty even in the most ordinary things, including foremost a landscape of hills and valleys strewn for weeks each year as far as the eye can see with bright yellow flowers so lavish that no painting could ever compare.