Wendy Priesnitz - writer, editor, changemaker
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The Power of Sunflowers

The Power of Sunflowers

Sunflowers are one of my favourite flowers. They're bold, cheerful suppliers of warmth and optimism in our gardens each year. And, right now, we're seeing them everywhere as symbols of support for the people of Ukraine.

There are a few good reasons for that. First of all, the sunflower is Ukraine's national flower and the country is a major international supplier of sunflower oil. But these flowers are much more than that. With particular relevance to the current war, they have become a symbol of peace and nuclear disarmament. After the break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Ukraine renounced nuclear weapons, and officials of the Ukraine, Russia, and the United States governments participated in a ceremonial planting of sunflowers at a former nuclear missile base in Ukraine to honor that decision. At the time, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry was reported to have asserted that “sunflowers instead of missiles in the soil would ensure peace for future generations.” Ironic.

In recent days, I have been reminded of an earlier use of sunflowers as a peace symbol. In the 1980s, a group of non-violent anti-nuclear activists known as The Peace Planters sowed sunflowers as part of a nuclear disarmament protest at a missile base in Missouri, an action that was followed by other similar ones in other locations; those particular nuclear silos are now history.

But there is even more to sunflowers than that. They are used for phytoremediation, which involves the use of plants to clean the environment. Sunflowers – especially perennial ones – are what environmental scientists call hyperaccumulators. Their root systems are extremely efficient at pulling nutrients and water from the ground; they also have the ability to take up high concentrations of toxic materials and store them in their stems and leaves.Tests at the disabled Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 1994 found that sunflowers can absorb radioactive isotopes cesium-137 and strontium-90 from soil and water. (The plants were later incinerated and the waste buried.) Sunflowers were later planted at the nuclear disaster site in Fukushima, Japan for the same purpose. They have also been used to remediate land contaminated with lead and to clean up polluted water from slaughterhouses and sewage plants in other countries.

The threat of nuclear war (not to mention the danger from radioactive waste or when nuclear power plants malfunction) is still with us. I hope that the contrast between nuclear weapons and sunflowers will remind us and those whom we've put in charge of our countries that our decisions can destroy or save our planet and its inhabitants.

 Wendy Priesnitz

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Beyond School by Wendy Priesnitz    Natural Life's Green and Healthy Homes by Wendy Priesnitz    It Hasn't Shut Me Up by Wendy Priesnitz    Challenging Assumptions in Education by Wendy Priesnitz    Life Learning by Wendy Priesnitz