#84 Sunflowers






Native to the Americas, the genus Helianthus is a member of the prolific Asteraceae family which contains over 32,000 species, including everything from asters and daisies to lettuce and thistles. Brought back from the New World in the early sixteenth century, they were first known as “the marigold of Peru”; Linnaeus classified varieties from Mexico, Peru, and what later became the state of Virginia (Ward 346, 345), naming them for their resemblance to the sun and their heliotropic habit of tilting to follow the sun across the sky.  According to Hogan’s massive encyclopedia of Flora, there are currently about seventy species of sunflower (683).  The common sunflower, Helianthus annus, fits the stereotypical description provided by Stephen Harris in his book on sunflowers: “A tall, annual, unbranched plant with a chrome-yellow flower head the size of a dinner plate” (46).  The giant blossoms are composites, the centers being made up of thousands of tiny fertile brownish florets, in mathematically perfect intersecting spirals, encircled by a band of tiny yellow flowers each attached to five ray petals, the whole cradled by green bracts, as hairy as the strong central stem.[1] At first grown as ornamentals, sunflowers quickly became commercially important for their seeds and then for the oil that could be pressed from them.


Mythically, sunflowers are associated with the Ovidian story of Clytie, who so adored Apollo the sun god that when he cast her aside in favor of Leukothoe, a Persian Princess, she made sure that Leukothe’s father learned of the illicit affair, inciting him to kill his wayward daughter. After the death of his beloved, Apollo was so angry that he refused to have anything to do with Clytie, who followed her lover’s progress across the sky with such devotion that she became rooted in the earth and turned into a sunflower (Metamorphoses, Book IV, ll. 205 and following). As Ward points out, this Greek story cannot refer to Helianthus since that species had not yet made it across the Atlantic (245-6); Folkard notes that in Ovid’s version Clytie was transformed into a flower “resembling a Violet” (283). At any rate Clytie had been associated with the spectacular South American flower by the time she became a popular subject for late nineteenth- century visual artists, including friend of the Stephen family, G.F. Watts, whose first full-size statue was a dramatically contorted bust of Clytie in mourning (1868-68).[2]



Around the same time (1866-70), Margaret Cameron, Woolf ‘s aunt, produced a rather pre-Raphaelite composition entitled “Sunflower,” whose subject certainly looks like a longing or at least morose nymph.


Lord Leighton’s 1896 painting of Clytie does not feature any blossoms but shows a woman keeling in a posture of abject desire.  



A long line of poets had already mounted something of a critique of the flower’s loyal if depressed habit of devotion from Blake, whose “Ah! Sun-flower” in Songs of Experience (1794) notes the boredom of the sunflower, “weary of time,” to Shelley (in Scenes from The Magico Prodigioso from the Spanish of Calderon, 1822), who advises the flower to “Follow not his faithless glance/ With thy faded countenance” (qtd. by Ward 348). In “Rudel To The Lady of Tripoli” in Men and Women (1842) Robert Browning‘s self-abnegating hero choses for his emblem or device “A sunflower spread out like a sacrifice”  (Ward 349). The darkest side of such self-sacrifice is perhaps best expressed by the Victorian poet Dora Greenwell, a champion of girl’s education and female suffrage much admired by Christina Rossetti, in her 1848 poem which presents the flower’s daily movement as a metaphor for both sexual desire and slavery:


Till the slow daylight pale,

A willing slave,

fast bound to one above,

I wait; he seems to speed, and change, and fail;

I know he will not move. I lift my golden orb

To his, unsmitten when the roses die,

And in my broad and burning disk absorb

the splendours of his eye.

His eye is like a clear

keen flame that searches through me: I must droop

upon my stalk, I cannot reach his sphere;

To mine he cannot stoop. (qtd by Ward 350-1)


The story of Clytie coupled with its heliotropic growing habit caused the sunflower to be a signifier of constancy and devotion in the Victorian language of flowers, but it was also seen as a symbol of ambition. Kate Greenaway defines the meaning of the dwarf sunflower as “Adoration,” while the tall variety is associated with “Haughtiness” (39) -- an interesting double reading which may have something to do with the adoption of the sunflower as a badge of identification by the Art-for-Art’s Sake movement at the end of the nineteenth-century, especially as embodied in the person of Oscar Wilde. Gilbert and Sullivan’s popular comic opera Patience (1881) was a satire of the Aesthetes, featuring two poets, one of whom, Reginald Bunthorne, was later popularly identified with Wilde. [3] Even a cursory search on Google will reveal a huge variety of images of Wildean sunflowers including this 1881 cartoon in Punch:



My personal favorite is this Wildean teapot.


Van Gogh’s dramatic presentation of sunflowers is another influential artistic rendering of sunflowers as more assertive than subordinate. The on-line Exhibition Guide to “Van Gogh and Britain,” presented at Tate Britain May-June 2019, quotes Woolf’s friend Roger Fry as saying in 1910 that “Modern European art has always mistreated flowers, dealing with them at best as aids to sentimentality until Van Gogh saw . . . the arrogant spirit that inhabits the sunflower.”[4]



Virginia Woolf’s fifteen mentions of sunflowers in her published writings focus mostly on personal, experiential encounters with the flowers, though there are some sidelong glances at historical associations. Some context for Woolf’s personal attitude towards sunflowers can be gleaned from references to them in her diary and letters.  Aside from passing comments on the condition of the sunflowers at Asham (D1 53; L2 193) and an episode at Monk’s House where a severe rash on Leonard’s arm was diagnosed as having been caused by uprooting sunflowers (D1 301), Woolf mostly uses the sunflower, in concert with bees, as an analogy for particularly absorbing moments of delight.  In April 1918 she describes Roger Fry’s intoxication over Cezanne’s painting of six apples saying “He was like a bee on a sunflower” (L2 230).  Seven years later she describes the happiness of Vanessa and Duncan painting on a hot September day in similar terms: “I never saw two people humming with heat and happiness like sunflowers on a hot day more than those two” (L3 209). And in September 1932 she described her own reaction to “the old habitual beauty of England” remarking, “I can fasten on a beautiful day, as a bee fixes itself on a sunflower” (D4 124).


The association of sunflowers with bees reappears in Woolf’s fiction in her 1931 novel The Waves. Although bees initially hum round the hollyhocks while Susan imagines waiting for her lover (71), at Hampton Court where the friends gather after the death of Percival the sunflower becomes for Bernard an emblem of a joy in life that he no longer claims: “I do not cling to life. I shall be brushed like a bee from a sunflower” (160). In Bernard’s summation, however, the sunflowers return in a memory of visiting Susan in the country while she is pregnant: “We sat in the garden; the farm carts came up dripping with hay; there was the usual gabble of rooks and doves; fruit was netted and covered over; the gardener dug. Bees boomed down the purple tunnels of flowers; bees embedded themselves on the golden shields of sunflowers” (199).  It is as if Woolf has projected the traditional passionate dependency of the sunflower onto the sensual delight of the bee.


This connection of sunflowers and bees with plenitude and fertility is accompanied by several appearances of sunflowers as emblems of a kind of singular autonomy, an interpretation directly at odds with the literary tradition of Clytie. The first and most notable of these occurs in a passage about flowers in Woolf’s 1926 essay “On Being Ill.”  In search of some kind of sympathy in nature, Woolf describes how a series of flowers including roses, gladioli, dahlias, and lilies “all gently incline their heads to the breeze,” the exception being the “heavy sunflower” who “proudly acknowledges the sun at midday and perhaps at midnight rebuffs the moon” (E4 322). After the example of the sunflower, flowers in general seem like “the stillest, the most self-sufficient of all things that human beings have made companions,” causing Woolf to remark on the irony that we have made these independent entities symbolize our passions (E4 322).


Written a few years later, the short story “The Lady in the Looking Glass: A Reflection” (1929) subtly mirrors and critiques this display of independence from passion in its use of sunflowers as a border to the path leading from the lady’s house to her lower garden. Although growing outside, the sunflowers are seen reflected in the mirror inside the house and thus serve as a metaphoric connection between the lady’s interior and exterior psychological attributes. In contrast to the evanescent liveliness inside the drawing room where shadows cause “obscure flushes and darkenings” revealing the room’s “passions and rages and envies and sorrows” which cloud it “like a human being,” the mirror reflects the sunflowers lining the garden path outside “so accurately and so fixedly that they seemed held there in their reality unescapably” (CSF 221). The “strange contrast” between change and stillness is emphasized by the wild tangle of vines Isabella Tyson finds in the lower garden where she favors “light and fantastic” plants such as the “trailing traveler’s joy” (a form of clematis) or “one of or one of those elegant sprays of convolvulus [morning glory] that twine round ugly walls and burst here and there into white and violet blossoms” to the “upright aster” or “the starched zinnia” (CSF 222). After a meditative and meandering excursion into the lady’s mind that “was like her room, in which lights advanced and retreated, came pirouetting and stepping delicately, spread their tails, pecked their way” (CSF 225), she returns to the house and is once again captured in the mirror with the sunflowers. In what seems to be a comment on the hollowness of mimesis, the light from the mirror seems to “fix her”: “Everything dropped from her—clouds, dress, basket, diamond—all that one had called the creeper and convolvulus,” and she is revealed in her naked emptiness (CSF 225).  In a rather extreme refutation of the tradition of seeing sunflowers as helplessly enslaved to passion, in this story they are rigidly reflective, the unfeeling opposite of a contingent, changeable play of emotion.


A later cluster of fictional sunflowers in Woolf’s 1937 novel, The Years, also seems to mock, albeit more gently, some traditional affiliations of the decoratively submissive sunflower.  Here they are mentioned three times, not as actual flowers but stamped into clay as wall decorations. They first appear in the autumnal 1891 section, when Eleanor visits her low-income houses in Peter St., out Bayswater Rd. (which runs along the top of Hyde Park from Marble Arch, west to Notting Hill). Her particular houses are distinguished from others by their green sills and the terra-cotta “plaque with a sunflower stamped upon it over the door” (91). Eleanor herself offers the beginning of an interpretation for the significance of the sunflowers: “That symbol of her girlish sentiment amused her grimly. She had meant it to signify flowers, fields in the heart of London” (TY 95). Considering that 1891 is ten years after the premiere of Patience at the height of the Aesthetic Movement and that William Morris was known to suggest painting window sills green, it seems reasonable to suggest the cracked plaque represents the fragility of her slightly old-fashioned utopian dreams of providing household autonomy to the poor.[5]


Photo I took of a terra cotta sunflower in London, dated 1874.

The terracotta sunflowers in The Years link Eleanor to a complex of mythological and literary allusions which adds another, more archetypal layer of meaning to these associations of the sunflower with the humming of sensory delight and the heavy burden of upright autonomy.  In her essay “The Years as Gotterdammerung, Greek Play, and Domestic Novel,” Jane Marcus makes the case that Eleanor has a number of affiliations with the sun which mark her as a figure of the Goddess: her name is a version of Helen, from “Helios, the sun” Languages of Patriarchy 40), and she is repeatedly associated with red and gold imagery (36, 49). According to Marcus, the name Abercorn Terrace  (abier, meaning dead but unburied + corn) further suggests her connection with Demeter and cyclical rituals of death and rebirth (40). And Demeter’s descent into Hades to rescue her daughter is hinted at when, concerned with Rose’s reaction to the menace of the exhibitionist, Eleanor feels that she “must descend, must carry her burden” and imagines herself carrying an “earthenware pitcher on her head” (41) – the earthenware pitcher foreshadowing the sigil of the terracotta sunflower plaque which appears later (91, 95).[6]


         Another, more graphic than archetypal, manifestation of the sunflower/sun imagery in the novel is the curious figure of a rayed blot repeatedly drawn by Eleanor.  A kind of dark complement to the sun  -- the first mention of the word “blot” in the book refers to the light of a room being shut out by a curtain (TY 18) -- Eleanor’s graphic marks appear in the first section as the dots she makes on the paper while adding up the family accounts (TY 20) –-shades of Vanessa’s weekly torture session with Leslie Stephen--, but eventually the marks expand and deepen as she becomes progressively more able to express her anger.[7] In a moment of introspection at Delia’s party at the end of the book, Eleanor thinks back on “the long strip of life” that lies behind her and, remembering the “sunflower with a crack in it,” wonders if “there’s ‘I’ at the middle of it. . . a knot; a centre; and again she [sees] herself sitting at her table drawing on the blotting paper, digging little holes from which the spokes radiated” (TY 348).  This third reference to sunflowers is a complex concatenation of associations, the cracked sunflower with an “I” in the middle recalling the struggle for autonomy, while the kinetic activity of drawing the rays is an expression of power, perhaps even arrogance.

        Woolf’s last mention of sunflowers, in a diary entry of July 1940, confirms an ever more feminist appropriation of the sunflower as a symbol of the costs of independent selfhood. Describing her friend Ray Strachey, a noted fighter for women’s suffrage and author of The Cause: A Short History of the Women’s Movement in Great Britain (1928), she compares her to a sunflower, somewhat dried out, with a faded countenance, perhaps weary of time:

Ray's hair stood up very vigorously on either side of the parting which lately she had made in the middle. . . .[There was] something tart about her; & as if some of the petals of what she hoped, as a girl, to be so yellow a sunflower--she was ambitious, self confident, was greedy & a little insensitive about 'fame'--as if these petals had withered & she cd. no longer be confident; was indeed disappointed, a little wounded, embittered; chiefly shown by her immense activity, as if always trying to get what she could not. And she grew so unwieldy; & cared so little for appearances; yet was envious, I guess, of the graces; & hadnt achieved altogether what her intention in disregarding the graces had been. I mean, she planned a great unconventional rough hewn figure; & it didnt altogether come off. (D5 304)

This deeply sympathetic yet rather brutally honest portrayal of the woman who was married to Lytton Strachey’s elder brother and sister to the woman who married Woolf’s younger brother assesses the cracks across the surface of Ray’s hopes as she grew from an ambitious, self-confident, bright yellow sunflower of a girl to a disappointed, embittered woman not quite able fully to sustain her unconventionality, marking a remarkable evolution in meaning from Victorian sentimentality to modern authenticity.

See Works Cited Page for full documentation


[1] See this Citizen Science site for an illustrated naming of parts: https://sites.google.com/site/npncitizenscience/sunflower-anatomy Accessed February 24, 2022.

[2] See this helpful article on the myth and the bust at the Victorian Web: https://victorianweb.org/sculpture/watts/moore.html Accessed February 24, 2022.

[3] See Andrew Crowther’s careful explanation of the chronology of this association; he asserts that at the time Patience was written Wilde was not well-known and his notoriety arose only after his America tour the next year. https://gsarchive.net/patience/wilde/wilde.html  Accessed February 24, 2022.

            Also helpful is the Introduction to the Aesthetic Movement on the V&A website: https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/an-introduction-to-the-aesthetic-movement


[4] See https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/ey-exhibition-van-gogh-and-britain/van-gogh-and-britain-exhibition-guide  Accessed March 1, 2022.  The Tate also adds:

Van Gogh painted pictures of sunflowers in 1888 to decorate his house in Arles in the South of France. They were exhibited in major exhibitions in London in 1910 and 1923 and Sunflowers was acquired for the nation by the National Gallery, Millbank (now Tate) in 1924.


[5] This website on Arts and Crafts Homes suggests that his advice to paint window sills

green was fairly common.  I have yet to confirm this in Morris sources.


            For more information of Woolf’s reaction to Morris’s utopian aspirations as old-fashioned, see my article, “Forward into the Past: Virginia Woolf’s Heterotopian Utopian Impulse.”


[6] Demeter and Clytie seem to suggest the spectrum of options that women in The Years have in their relations to the Heliotic men in the novel:  the Clyties –Milly, Delia, and Kitty – orient their lives to follow the desires of their men; the Demeters – Rose and Sara, and eventually Eleanor— win through to some kind of autonomy. In this scheme, Maggie is a kind of balance point in a happy egalitarian marriage.  See Squier, p. 140.


[7] See my article “Sunflower Suture: Disseminating the Garden in The Years” for a fuller discussion of rays and blots, including some speculations on drawings of flowers in the holograph MS of The Years.

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About 98 Flowers

Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...