Exploring an unfamiliar trail, I saw plastic sunflowers tucked into cracks in every park bench. Sunflowers adorn murals, sidewalks, billboards, T-shirts, and social media profile pictures. Since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, images of Ukraine’s national flower surround us as a sign of our support. Not till summer will the real blooms turn fields as yellow as the lower half of the Ukrainian flag, beneath a clear blue sky.
Big, bright sunflowers have deep roots in Ukrainian art and folklore. Grown for their seeds in Mexico, New Mexico, and Arizona for thousands of years, they were introduced to Europe in the early 1500s. They flourished in Ukraine’s hot, dry climate and rich soil. Sunflower seed oil was especially welcome during Lent, when the Orthodox Church forbade eating foods made with animal products such as butter or lard.
Ukraine is the largest exporter of sunflower oil, accounting for nearly half the global supply. Russia comes second, with nearly a quarter. Disruptions to production and trade are having ripple effects on vegetable oil availability and prices worldwide, similar to what’s happening with a different kind of oil at the gas pump. The war touches us all, but most of all the suffering people of Ukraine.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.