Plant a sunflower victory garden for Ukraine

There was a time in our not so distant past when Americans planted gardens during wartime to both replenish crops and to show solidarity for troops fighting overseas. Americans can show our solidarity for our brothers and sisters in Ukraine by planting sunflowers this spring in a sunflower victory garden.

During World War I, a severe food crisis emerged in Europe as agricultural workers were recruited into military service and farms were transformed into battlefields. Just weeks before the United States entered the war, Charles Lathrop Pack organized the National War Garden Commission. The commission encouraged Americans to help the war effort by planting, fertilizing, harvesting, and storing their own fruits and vegetables so that more food could be exported to our allies. Americans were told to “sow the seeds of victory.” Victory gardens were soon found popping up everywhere across the country. Victory gardens re-emerged after the U.S. entered World War II.


The victory garden campaign served as a way for those back home to do something, express patriotism and prevent food shortages. According to the Smithsonian website, roughly half of all American families had a victory garden during World War II. There were at least 20 million victory gardens covering more than 20 million acres of American soil by 1943. By 1944, 40% of the nation’s produce was supplied by victory gardens. American families had grown approximately 8 million tons of food by the time the war ended in 1945.

Sunflowers are the national flower of Ukraine. As a result, images of sunflowers are popping up across the world as a way to show support for the Ukrainian people and as a sign of resistance.

Former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton recently left sunflowers at a church in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village as a sign of solidarity.

An example of this resistance is even emerging from inside Ukraine. A viral video has been circulated of a brave Ukrainian woman who was filmed telling a Russian soldier: “You should put these sunflower seeds in your pockets so that they will grow on Ukrainian land when you die.” The video cannot be verified but has been viewed nearly 10 million times.

The towering yellow flower traditionally represents happiness, optimism, honesty, longevity, peace, admiration and devotion. Another of the sunflower’s most important symbolic meanings is that of a world of peace and having a nuclear-free world. It is ironic that sunflowers are the national flower of Ukraine, whose peace has been stripped and is now in constant worry of a nuclear attack from Russia.

Sunflowers have been associated with anti-proliferation of nuclear weapons since 1996 after the sunflower had been shown to have environmental benefits from toxic radiation. Environmental scientists categorize sunflowers as hyperaccumulators. Hyperaccumulators are plants that have the ability to take up high concentrations of toxic materials in their tissues.

Sunflowers have root systems that evolved as extremely efficient mechanisms for pulling nutrients, water and minerals out of the ground, among them: zinc, copper, and other radioactive elements that are then stored in their stems and leaves. After the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with the more recent nuclear disasters in Chernobyl, Ukraine, and Fukushima, Japan, fields of sunflowers were planted across affected fields to help absorb radiation from the soil.

Ukraine has been harvesting sunflowers since the 1700s. Ukraine is responsible for about 46% of the world’s sunflower crop and, until Russia’s invasion, was a major world supplier of sunflower oil. The 2021 sunflower crop has already been harvested and is being held waiting to be processed into oil. Most sunflower oil production plants are completely closed. Some of the heaviest fighting and worst destruction is taking place in the Ukrainian towns where that processing takes place. Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea are currently blocked meaning that there are no products leaving or entering Ukraine via sea. Farmers have had to abandon their harvest and flee for safety or stay and fight. There will likely be no planting this spring.

As Americans begin to plan their gardens, hopefully we can all make space for these giants of hope, democracy and courage.

Anyone can plant a sunflower victory garden. There are sunflowers for all kinds of gardens. Sunflowers will grow anywhere. There are even small varieties that are suitable for container gardens. All they ask is for a sunny spot, moderately fertile soil and moist, but well-drained conditions.

The Burpee seed company is donating all of its sunflower seed sales from to the Red Cross and International Rescue Committee to aid in Ukraine relief efforts.

Once again Americans are being asked to sow the seeds of hope, freedom, and of victory. Victory over authoritarianism, oppression and tyranny.

Lynn Schmidt is a columnist and Editorial Board member of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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