BAXTER SPRINGS - Cherokee County has one thing the rest of the state doesn't: Route 66. Although the 'Mother Road' only briefly winds through the most southeastern corner of Kansas, this section of the famous highway is as alive today as it ever was.
Commemorating the role Route 66 has played in the development of the surrounding community, the City of Baxter Springs has added to the visual aesthetic of its section in a uniquely Kansan way. City Street Department Manager Jim Morton has planted a massive field of sunflowers. The majestic yellow giants stand where the highway enters the city. The field is a brilliant visual delight for 66-ers traveling through, as well as local residents.
The sunflower is the official state flower, and is a symbol Kansans have identified with since the 1800's. One of Kansas' most widely known nicknames is indeed "the Sunflower State". But where did this tradition begin?
Legend has it that in the late 1800’s, a Kansas state lawmaker noticed Kansans wearing sunflowers to identify themselves as being from “the Sunflower State”. Inspired by this, George Morehouse filed legislation to make the sunflower the state’s official floral emblem.
In 1903, Helianthus (the wild sunflower) formally became the state flower of Kansas. In their legislation, lawmakers praised the sunflower as a symbol of the state’s frontier days, saying: "This flower has to all Kansans a historic symbolism which speaks of frontier days, winding trails, pathless prairies, and is full of the life and glory of the past, the pride of the present, and richly emblematic of the majesty of a golden future."
Ironically, less than a decade earlier, lawmakers had unsuccessfully called for the eradication of the “noxious weed.”
Sunflower heads actaully consist of up anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 individual flowers joined together by a receptacle base. The large petals around the edge of a head are actually individual ray flowers, which do not develop into seed.
There are more than 60 species of sunflowers. The native sunflower grows to 15 feet tall with flower heads up to two feet in diameter The flower head turns and faces the sun throughout the day - tracking the sun's movement.
Not only is the Kansas state flower attractive, but it is also an increasingly valuable resource. The sunflower’s oil is used in cooking and the seeds are used in breads, salads, and as a snack food. In recent years, sunflowers have also been grown to harvest their oil for use as an alternative biodiesel fuel.