Sunflowers and Colonialism

sunflowers and colonialism

The sunflower was already taller than me, and it still had more weeks of summer in which to grow. Its yellow head drooped, too big and seed-heavy for the sturdy stalk, and the support from a trellis made from three bamboo sticks tied together. The flower was in the front garden of a house in Regent Park, Toronto. The home, part of a block of low-rise social housing, will soon be demolished as part of the regeneration of the area. I like to think that the planting of the sunflower was an act and a flag of resistance.

I first met sunflowers in a painting. You know, that one by Vincent van Gough, with a bouquet of misshapen sunflowers spilling out of a crude vase. Based on the painting, I assumed that sunflowers were native to Europe.

Sunflowers are actually native to North America. They were domesticated thousands of years ago at the dawn of farming on the continent, and as the seeds are rich in oil and fat, they were a staple of Indigenous diets. Sunflowers were also used to make dye, ranging in colour from shades of beige to purple.

Sunflowers travelled to Europe with the Spanish explorers. They are another example of the Grand Exchange, where foods and other crops were shuffled from one part of the world to another, starting in 1492. Some of the most important food crops in the world today are from the Americas. Corn. Potato. Avocado. Tomato.

Helianthus annuus, the scientific name for the common sunflower, began to show up in European oil paintings in the 1600s. The Dutch painter Anthony van Dyck painted Self-Portrait with a Sunflower in 1663. Countless other old master painters included sunflowers as exotic and expensive props in their art. Helianthus is another of the flowers of empire and trade. And in my part of the world, that splash of yellow in the paintings hid the centuries of genocide and slavery.

Russia became the sunflower farming capital of Europe in the 18th century. The seeds were crushed for their oil. The stalks and empty flower heads were good food for farm animals. Sunflowers are the national flower of Russia and the Ukraine.

In Canada sunflower farms are mainly in the prairies. Not many of the farms are owned by Indigenous farmers. Like the rest of the agricultural sector, racial diversity is near zero among farmer owners. It’s a different story when one looks at the agricultural workers. They are most likely to be Black or brown, hired on seasonal contracts from Mexico, Jamaica and other South American and Caribbean countries.

Last year, when the floods drowned farmlands on the west coast of Canada, the media focus was on the loss of income for the farmers. Only one report was on the seasonal agricultural workers who were left penniless and unemployed by the floods. They, and the Indigenous communities, were the last to get help. Farming and settler-colonialism are conjoint twins in Canada.

Sunflowers always point towards the sun, turning their heads to follow its movement across the sky. Seeing that single sunflower in Regent Park made me smile. Resistance comes in many forms. Including a sunflower, thriving on tough ground.

© Jacqueline L. Scott. You can support the blog here.

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