Monday, June 11, 2012


Jane Friedman
(Photo from
           The Garden Writers’ Association reminds me of Hotel California: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. Although I stopped paying dues some years ago (for the full story, see “A Blogging Crisis” from 22 October 2011), I’m still on their mailing list. The latest emailed GWA News Clippings contained a link to a blog post from Jane Friedman’s eponymous website (“Being human at electric speed: Exploring what it means to be a writer in the digital age.”) with an intriguing hook—“Top 10 Blog Traffic Killers.”

            Turns out GFTGU must plead guilty to two of Friedman’s no-nos: specifically, not posting often enough (in the aftermath of the aforementioned blogging crisis); and exceeding the optimum target of 500 words (all the damn time). People have changed the way they read, Ms. F tells us. Their fractured attention spans can handle only the briefest of scans before fluttering off to the next thing.

            Well, huh.

            Turns out Miss Jane (a former CEO of HarperCollins) turns out ebooks: hence her knowledge of cyber-readers’ inability to focus. Here in anti-electric-speed-land, however, most of us can and do read more than headlines and snippets. Then we actually think about what all those words mean, and use them to learn about the real world, where diverse views serve as stepping stones to expanded understanding.

            Be that as it may, adhering to word-counts does tend to tone up flabby writing. By way of experiment, here’s a 510-word piece on sunflowers for all length-challenged cyberians out there. Try to stick with it all the way to the end, okay?

            Sunflowers personify summer, in color, in stature, in fecundity. Beautiful yellow ray flowers attract butterflies and bees while sturdy stalks lend support to leaners like tomatoes and annual vines. Ripened seeds provide oil- and vitamin E-rich food for birds and mammals. Naturally vigorous plants, they’re easily started from seed.

Helianthus annuus 'Lemon Queen'
           The genus name, Helianthus, is an amalgam of ancient Greek words for sun (helios) and flower (anthos), referring to the way the flowers keep oriented to the sun’s position in the sky. The biological mechanisms behind this phenomenon, called heliotropism, are amazing. Motion happens when specialized potassium-pumping cells just below a flowerhead or in a stem detect blue light rays, causing potassium ions to alter the turgor pressure in nearby tissues. On the shady side, increased rigidity causes elongation of certain cells, causing the plant to “follow” the light.

"Vase with 15 Sunflowers"
by Vincent Van Gogh
            When anyone mentions sunflowers, the picture that springs to mind is of Helianthus annuus, glorified by personalities as varied as Vincent Van Gogh and Oscar Wilde, the enduring symbol of the Aesthetic Movement. In the Victorian era’s language of flowers, sunflowers signified “haughtiness” and “adoration.” In the 21st century, the Great Sunflower (bee-counting) Project chose an annual cultivar, ‘Lemon Queen,’ to ensure uniform citizen-scientists’ observations. Annuals account for the bulk of edible seed harvests. A darling of breeders and florists, sunflowers are enjoying boom times. No longer confined to shades of yellow, lately reds, whites and bicolor versions abound. Heights vary too, from 12 inches (‘Elf,’ ‘Big Smile’) to over 12 feet (‘Mammoth Russian,’ ‘Sunzilla’).

            Helianthus contains other, perennial species. One of the best for southeastern North Carolina is H. angustifolius, or swamp sunflower. Flowering through October, its stalks can tower to ten feet or more. The two-to-three-inch-wide golden yellow rayed discs may not be a match in size to those of their annual cousins, but more than make up for it in numbers.

Helianthus angustifolius
Helianthus angustifolius
towers above Fitzes' back yard


Heliopsis helianthoides 'Sommesonne'
            Other sunflower relations include members of the genus Heliopsis (loosely translated, “like the sun”). A prolific ditch- and roadside brightener in wetter years (like this one), wild summer sunflower grabbed the attention of German and English breeders, who hybridized weedy-looking H. helianthoides with the more restrained subspecies scabra, resulting in garden-worthy cultivars like ‘Sommesonne’ (“Summer Sun”).

Helenium sp., common sneezeweed
            Helenium is another perennial genus of sunflower, named not for the sun but—somewhat ambiguously—for Helen of Troy. Its common name is sneezeweed, an undeserved epithet deriving from the fact it blooms in the fall around the same time as ragweed.

            To grow sunflowers, all you need is a packet of seeds and a piece of ground that gets at least six hours of sunlight a day, has good drainage and access to supplemental water should rains fail to come. When cultivating sunflowers, be aware that, early on, birds or squirrels may eat freshly planted seeds; they are also partial to very young shoots with two to four leaves. At the other end of the season, competition for the mature seeds is brisk.

            It's not too late to plant. Pick up a packet of seeds this afternoon, and grow yourself some sunshine.

            If you managed to get through the opening commentary and this conclusion, you’ll have read a total of 819 words. Those of us who think 819 words is merely a good beginning salute you.

            Thanks for dropping by.



  1. Counting captions, it rang in at 845 (which may or may not count, but I do read them!) I had to search my dictionary twice, and I consider myself to have a pretty good vocabulary. You usually send me to the dictionary at least once a post, and that is a good thing.
    Be well.

  2. Billie--
    Mea culpa. Magazine editors don't count titles, sub-headings, captions or self-serving author blurbs. They probably should.
    What words didn't you know? I consider you to have an excellent vocabulary, too.
    Warmest regards, K

    1. Kathy, I am always learning! The two words that stumped me were turgor and cyberians. Cyberians - duh I should have been able to extrapolate that one. Turgor - I will cut myself some slack on that one.

      Keep up the good work, I always appreciate a trip to the dictionary, it reminds me of my Mother..."go look it up"


  3. I'm feeling pretty darned accomplished right now, having made it through all 800-ish words in one sitting. With a trip to the dictionary.

  4. Aw, come on, Karen! What word didn't YOU know? But congratulations on making it through one of my shorter posts. This week's will be even shorter--I just sent out a 1500-word article to American Nurseryman, and my butt is telling me to stand up and use some of the muscles that aren't in my hands.
    Thanks for writing--it's always a treat to hear from you.