Roots and Stems, Flowers and Graves

On the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the news outlet Ukraine World shared a video on Twitter showing a Ukrainian woman in Henychesk giving sunflower seeds to Russian soldiers. [1] She says, “Take these seeds and put them in your pockets so that at least sunflowers [the Ukrainian national flower] will grow where you fall.” She says, “Take the seeds. You came to my land. The flowers will grow when you lie down in defeat.” Her back is to the camera. Clad in a black coat and white woolen hat, she is Ukraine’s Tank Man, the street in the Kherson region of Ukraine her Tiananmen Square. She stares down impossible force with flower seeds in her pockets and steel in her spine.

It’s a strange thing, the spaces life and death share: living seeds in the pockets of a fallen soldier, cut flowers atop a cool grey gravestone, poppies swaying in Flanders field. In English and French trenches in World War I, soldiers used exploded German shells as flowerpots. A journalist travelling along the trenches at Ypres was amazed by what he saw in the muddy slick and slump that crisscrossed former farmland: “A little vegetable garden, and next to it for beauty’s sake, a flower garden, and next to that a little graveyard.” [2] Celery grew well in the shadows created by trench walls; petrol cans that had been shot through made excellent watering pots. An English prisoner in the 4,000-strong Ruhleben prisoner of war camp near Berlin became a gardening columnist for the camp’s prodigious lettuce field and wrote by the name of “Forget-me-not.” [3] Flowers and fighting, gardening and guns, war and cultivation of life sharing surprising, literal ground.

Private JW Graystone wrote in May 1916 of his interest in trench-line gardening but wondered whether “turning the earth over and over will do any good.” [4] While he spoke of planting English peas in bloody body-beds amid soiled bandages, shrapnel balls, and bone fragments, his question—will turning the earth over and over do any good? —defines the senseless territorial trades of the Great War. By the end of 1914, the western front of trenches stretched from the North Sea through Belgium into France and remained the fraught frontline for the next three and a half years. [5] The trenches—and their gardens—became long, unmarked graves as walls caved in and bodies piled up. Did turning the earth over and over do any good?

When the war ended, No Man’s Land became fields and plats of wildflowers: vermillion poppies, cloudy-skies larkspur, paper-thin lilies, wild thistle with marigold blossoms, and white-rayed daisies. The ground had been turned over by shelling; the soil had been fertilized by nitrogen-rich bombing. [6] In Flanders fields, poppies grow atop the backs of the dead. [7]

Almost twenty-six years ago, Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, Ukrainian Defense Minister Valery Schmarov, and U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry gathered with a small crowd at the former Soviet Pervomaysk missile base in southern Ukraine. Buried beneath their feet were the destroyed remains of missile Silo 110. The black ground was freshly turned over and waiting, and aluminum watering cans glinted in the sun. The three leaders planted sunflowers—soniashnyk in Ukrainian—as a sign of peace as the crowd cheered and cameras flashed. The planting marked the disarmament of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. After spading soil atop the flowers, Perry said that the moment ensured “that our children and our grandchildren will live in peace.” [8] Nearly twenty-six years later, a Ukrainian woman demands the invading Russian soldier carry sunflower seeds in his pockets as missiles shriek through the southern Ukrainian sky.

Horace Gregory has, in the years since the publication of his May 1973 poem “Peace in Our Time,” been proven an unfortunate oracle; his poem is eerily prescient of both the June 1996 symbolic planting of peaceful sunflowers and the current international crisis. We “sign peace treaties. The sunlight over us,/ The days are lovely: Laburnam swaying/ Its golden head, Jasmine in flower,/ And among the grasses, Larkspur and Lilies.” [9] But, Gregory warns, “at night there are distant noises…and behind the arras incessant whisperings” of war and hate, violence and destruction. [10] There are “deeper shadow[s]” than before, and, despite the lovely larkspur and lilies, “we lie awake” waiting for what we feel, and fear, comes next. [11]

The sunflower remains a symbol of peace, kept alive by the figuration of the seed. Planting is perennial. Seeds can be placed again, and again, and yet again, in black ground atop scraps of missiles and the detritus of empire, old bits of army boot and shards of bone, celery roots and German shell flowerpots. The unidentified Ukrainian woman (though she did not know it) held out sunflower seeds to the world, and they have been carried in pockets and planted in hearts. At the State of the Union on Tuesday night, First Lady Jill Biden wore a sunflower embroidered on her right sleeve. Protestors held up pictures of sunflowers in the streets worldwide, and artists used them to spell “BELIEVE” in public art installations. Downing Street is adorned with sunflowers drawn by English schoolchildren. Social media posts have included sunflower emojis as a sign of support and solidarity with Ukraine and its unofficial national symbol. [12]

The symbol does what the sunflower does best: flourish where planted, in the hardiest of manners and in the most difficult of circumstances. The sunflower remains, rooted and strong, where others wither. They perform heliotropism as they grow, gaining more sunlight and super-charging photosynthesis. Storing up energy in their rough stems and branching leaves, the sunflowers are gaining strength to do hard things. When they finally open their golden faces, petals, and seeds to the world, sunflowers stop moving and face resolutely, firmly, defiantly east.

Flowers blooming in unexpected places find their way into the poetry that blossomed in the trenches of World War I, amidst the celery plants and broken bodies. Isaac Rosenberg writes of poppies “whose roots are in men’s veins.” [13] The poppy grows in an unexpected place, blooming while “shrieking iron and flame” scream above its roots and petals. [14] There is such resilience in its form, and bravery in its vital endurance. So, also, is there bravery—unspeakable, demanding, inspiring bravery—in this Ukrainian woman who puts sunflower seeds in her pocket and a white woolen hat on her head, and walks out to face the invader with life, not a gun, in her hands.

This post was written by Abby Thatcher, Humanities Center intern.


[1] Ukraine World, “Ukrainian woman confronts Russian soldiers in Henychesk, Kherson region.” Accessed 7 March 2022. Available at

[2] Robin Lane Fox, “Flowering in the trenches: Soldiers of the First World War tended flowers and vegetables on their battle lines.” Financial Times. Accessed 7 March 2022. Available at

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Trench Warfare.” The National WWI Museum and Memorial. Accessed 7 March 2022. Available at

[6] Fox, ibid.

[7] John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields.” Poetry Foundation. Accessed 7 March 2022. Available at

[8] James Rupert, “Sunflowers Planted to Mark End of Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine,” The Washington Post, 5 June 1996. Accessed 7 March 2022. Available at

[9] Horace Gregory, “Peace in Our Time,” May 1973. Poetry Foundation. Accessed 7 March 2022. Available at

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Abigail Adcox, “Flower Power: How Ukraine’s national flower became a symbol of solidarity.” The Washington Examiner, 5 March 2022. Accessed 7 March 2022. Available at

[13] Isaac Rosenberg, “Break of Day in the Trenches,” Move Him into the Sun. Accessed 7 March 2022. Available at

[14] Ibid.

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