Days in the Life of a Sunflower


On April 9 I was startled to see this seedling where last year's sunflower had been.  I took this photo just in case it turned out to be a sunflower too, although I doubted it at the time.

The next day I photographed a group of such seedlings that seemed to come from nowhere.  I certainly wasn't going to let all of them mature, but I had time to watch and wonder.

We got a foot of snow of April 29 but it melted and collapsed onto the plants quickly.  Typical New Mexico morning storm that melts by mid-afternoon.  Free inch of water.

The plants are now a month old and the foot ruler shows that the leaves span about 6 inches.  It was time to stop their competition and pick one based on health and location.

So on May 8 only one plant remained (red arrow), surrounded by old darker potting soil with some fertilizer in it.

I noticed that the small plant seemed to be tracking the sun on May 24.  In this early morning photo the broad leaves faced left, which was eastward toward the sun.  They rotated to the right throughout the day, seeming to follow the sun.  No astronomy was involved, just an internal chemical clock.

By June 9 the stem continued upwards and the size of the newer leaves got larger and larger.


This early morning photo shows the leaves facing the sun (right) like baseball mitts, sucking up light to generate the sugars that help the whole plant visibly grow bigger each day.


No time to waste before time is up and everything but the seeds self-destruct.  It's a tough process but it has successfully gone on year after century after millennium after ....

It was just over knee high on June 13 with huge light-gathering leaves (only 5 weeks after that little seedling in the first photo!).  Despite that ruler in my hands, I have resisted measuring heights and making graphs, etc.  I'm just enjoying the show.  The rose bushes are doing very well also.

Only a week later the rose bushes had a rival for height.  Then a cold wave came in for a weekend and the growth rate seemed to slow down.  Looks like the hotter the better for the chemical reactions that we see as growth.


The big floppy leaves just shrugged off the hail stones on June 25, even those that were an inch in diameter.


Just another day in the life of a sunflower.

Insects nibble on the sunflower's leaves but not enough to slow down the rapid growth.  A grasshopper plague would be another story but the last one in this location was in 1982, I believe, and wasn't up to Kansas devastating standards.

These two insects did no visible damage during their wanders around the leaves.  Perhaps they feasted on other insects that damaged leaves, thus assisting the sunflower.  Ants have crawled the 5 feet from ground to crown, searching for what I don't know.  I suppose they know what they're doing.

On June 28, after 7 weeks of growing and 2 weeks after being knee high, the sunflower was chin high and taller than the rose bushes.  It's like the hour hand on a clock -- you can't see it move but when you come back a bit later it's visibly moved.  If I'd measure it I might find it grows even over night!

     This sunflower and all other plants and animals have genetic materials (genome) within almost each of their cells (our red blood cells are an exception) that affect their growth and lives. It's complicated business that was just beginning to be figured out when we were in school.  Wonders are still being discovered every day.


     For example, humans normally have 23 pairs of chromosomes (we were taught 24 in school) with about 20,000 protein-producing genes (far fewer than assumed before the 1990s).  We now know that genes interact with themselves and other materials to widen their various vital productions, multiplying the count of protein varieties far beyond that 20,000 number.  It's not just the old one-gene creates one-protein rule any longer.

     Sunflowers have 17 chromosomes but their gene count hasn't been worked out.  However, it seems clear that within each cell the sunflower has a bit MORE genetic material than in a human cell.  The gene count for many other organisms is far greater than ours (a grape plant's cell has 30,000!)!  It's not how many genes you have, it's how you use them!

     Sunflowers are a cash crop for the oils in their seeds, so specific genes specific to oil production are being identified for agricultural reasons.


        Just for Fun


     I admit it.  After a brief search through some of the interesting materials that have been sent to me and that I've otherwise gathered, I got fatigued and am taking an easy way out this month and just putting on a picture show.


     I'm finally convinced that the suspect little plant (and others like it) that volunteered to grow in our raised flower bed this year is indeed a sunflower.  I saw no seeds in last year's mature sunflower and neither did the birds, so this new plant was totally unexpected.  I eventually isolated a single healthy, well placed plant and have watered it every day (when it didn't rain or snow) and enjoyed watching it not only grow but gyrate to maximize the amount of photosynthesis it could generate in a day.


     Past sunflowers in this location have reached 8 feet tall entirely on their own, but with all this care I'm shooting for 10 feet this year.  I'll let you know, of course.