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I'm seeking information on the species of sunflowers Van Gogh painted. Any input from botanists or informed gardeners would be appreciated.

Jose Navarro responds:

Some scholars say that the origin of this plant is in South West of U.S.A. and the North of Mexico. Others put the origin in Mexico, Peru and U.S.A., between Minnesota and the Gulf of Mexico.Some say that there were old forms in West Canada.

The taxonomical classification for cultivated sunflower is:

Family: Compositae
Subfamily: Tubulifloras
Tribe: Heliantheas
Genus: Helianthus
Species: Annuus

The genus Helianthus has many species, more than 68 after some scholars, some of them are annual, others are perennial. Annual, 11 species, have 34 chromosomes and their origin is North América, and perennial have 34, 68 or 102 chromosomes, and their origin is in North and South América.

I think that H. Annus comes from the cross between two savage forms: H. lenticularis and H. debilis. The cultivar "macrocarpus" is considered like the form from which all the cultivated forms come.

Indians used sunflower for both uses: Direct Food and to get oil.

Spanish brought it to Europe in the XVIth century like an ornamental plant, and as an ornamental plant expanded for all the nations, arriving to Russia in the XVIIIth century. In the XIXth century it was wide cultivated in Central and South Russia, for direct food and to get oil. In 1883 it appears the first important factory of oil in this country. The oldest agronomical reference I have found in Spain is from 1883 too.

Coming to your question, if the great expansión of the cultivate sunflower in Europe, France included, was at the end of the XIXth century, and an important date is 1883, and Vincent painted his sunflowers between 1887 and 1889, in Paris and in Arlés, I believe that he painted "cultivated sunflowers", so the specie is Annuus. Actual cultivars, after years of selections, are very different from originals.

There´s a mythological legend about the origin of the sunflower: The nymph Clytia fell in love with the king Helios, but this did not pay any attention to her, so she decided to look at him with a fixed and supplicant sight while he made his daily celestial trajectory. With the pass of the time she emitted roots, and changed into a plant, whose flowers look at the sun during his daily walk through the sky.

As Vincent was so unfortunate with women, Was he a sunflower of love too?

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