Have you noticed? Our watershed is awash in sunflowers. Go in any direction and you’ll see them. On your way to Sacramento, Winters, Woodland, driving out Pole Line Road or heading west on Covell Boulevard.
Since I’m often on a bicycle, I have a chance to notice them close up and wonder. Why so many sunflowers this year? Where are they going? Why are there rows of short plants and then more rows of tall plants?
Some of my questions were answered thanks to chats with Rachel Long, farm adviser for the UC Davis Cooperative Extension, and with Andy Rasack at Pioneer Seed.
All of the sunflowers you see growing in the fields around here are being grown exclusively for seed production. They are being shipped all over the world. And there are many different species. Some are adapted to grow in northern Russia. Others are adapted to different lengths of day.
Yolo County has the perfect weather for sunflower seed production — warm days, cool evenings and dry summers. So, Yolo has a significant world market for the seeds, as does Colusa County. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta not so much, since they have so many wild sunflowers with pollen drift.
There are rows of short sunflowers interspersed with tall sunflowers because they plant males and females — two rows of males and six rows of females. Sometimes the males are shorter and sometimes the females are shorter. Then they bring in the bees. The bee collapse and shortage of bees has not been a problem because they don’t need the numbers of bees necessary for almond tree pollination.
The fields that use different pollinator sources must be 1.25 miles away from other fields or any other source of sunflower pollen. If a homeowner plants a sunflower in the garden, that can be a source of trouble for the seed-producing farmers. Representatives of seed companies normally drive around looking for sunflowers in yards and if they spot some, they offer to replace them with one that is the same as what they have in the fields or they ask if they can put a bag over the homeowner’s sunflower to keep pollen from spreading. It is a huge problem.
Planting is in April but some as late as May. By August, they are drying down and ready for harvest.
The sunflowers for oil are all grown in the Midwest because they need really big acreage and there is not as much of a return. The seed companies want to keep our area for seed production. Chile is also a big producer of sunflowers, however, when they had the big earthquake, all of the seeds stored on the ground got mixed up so Yolo County picked up on the market.
Happily, the sunflowers take less water than other field crops. I had always believed that sunflowers turn their heads to track the sun, but my research indicates that only immature flower buds face the sun. Mature flowers face east. Sunflowers have been with us forever. The earliest known examples in the United States date to 2300 B.C. and in Mexico, to 2600 B.C.
The sunflower is the symbol being used for national days of actions called “Summer Heat” by 350.org. Summer Heat is a national movement concerned with climate change. More than 50 local and national organizations are cooperating. On Saturday, Aug. 3, people will meet at 10 a.m. at the Richmond BART station and march to the Chevron Richmond Refinery. Many Davis residents plan to attend.
Aug. 3 is the anniversary of the big refinery fire last year. The fire and explosion resulted in 15,000 residents sent to emergency rooms. The Contra Costa Times revealed that Chevron and other Bay Area refineries are already refining tar sands oils from Canada brought to the Bay Area by rail and that they want more.
The Summer Heat movement is a family-friendly event to say “no way” to tar sands and even dirtier fracked crude oil and demand a swift, just transition to a sustainable clean-energy economy. A children’s brigade with sunflowers will lead the march and rally with Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and national climate champion Bill McKibben.
The sunflower is used as a symbol for the Aug. 3 rally because sunflowers are used to extract toxic ingredients from oil. After the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan caused a nuclear disaster, sunflowers were planted to remove contaminants from the fallout zone, and to bring a symbol of hope. The plants and seeds from the sunflowers are then gathered and disposed of safely. They were even used in the radioactive cleanup after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, at our ponds, shorebird migration is happening. At the North Pond you might spot black-necked stilts, yellowlegs, dowitchers and other shorebirds. You’ll find shorebirds increasing in all of our wetlands. Join the Friends of West Pond at 8 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 7, for a gentle two-hour birding and botany walk. Meet at the gazebo west end of Isle Royale Lane.
Swainson’s hawks chicks have now grown into branchers. Though often larger than their parents, they are still being fed. Alexander Kosik in East Davis has been enjoying watching the development of a pair of Swainson’s hawks feeding their one chick. He managed to get an excellent video. Google YouTube and put “Swainson’s hawk nest” in the search. You will watch a teenage hawk eating a furry rodent until a parent decides to take over and feed the brancher/teenager more efficiently.
May we all find a balance in enjoying our beautiful area, and protecting it. Kiss each day!
— Jean Jackman is a Davis resident; her column is published monthly. Got a comment, correction, story or question? Contact her at JeanJackman@gmail.com