- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2001

It is a blue jay's dream come true, and a seedy tale indeed.

It is Melvin Hemker's giant sunflower plant, stretching skyward and dwarfing Melvin, the house, the lawn, the grandkids and just about everything else on the Michigan landscape.

There are 856 flower heads on this plant.

"I thought they were peculiar," Mr. Hemker said. "But I never imagined they could set records."

He has seen plenty; he knows the land. The retired farmer has lived on the Hemker family acres near St. Charles for all of his 82 years, out where the soil has proved faithful and the Bad River and Fairchild Creek mark out the territory.

Mr. Hemker's sunflower is about to shatter the records among the world's florid flora. It is 14 times larger than the winning entry for the "Most Flower Heads on One Sunflower" category listed in the 2001 Guinness Book of Records, which had a mere 61 flowers.

The baroque tangle of green and yellow requires three wooden braces to support all its verdant personality — and Mr. Hemker didn't even plant the thing.

"The first plant just came up on it own," he recalls. "I counted 202 heads on it when it got at its biggest, but I didn't think nothing of it."

The spirited specimen, however, was just getting started. It returned the following season to a spot beside the 100-year-old farmhouse where Mr. Hemker grew up, this time growing 11 feet tall and sporting over 300 flowers.

This year, the sunflower got up around 10 feet, but became a monster twice as wide.

Mr. Hemker took some notice.

His 9-year-old granddaughter Shelby brought over the current Guinness book as proof that the sunflower was extraordinary.

The Hemker family rallied together, contacted Guinness officials last week and are awaiting a pronouncement that, yes, the plant now holds the world record.

Which of course may not sit so well with the Roberts family in Waterford Township, some 50 miles to the southeast. Last summer, Rose Marie and Chuck Roberts discovered an errant sunflower growing on the side of their house, which they plied with cow manure and lots of water. By late August, the big bruiser stood 16 feet tall and bristled with 129 flowers.

It did not occur to the couple to fuss over the plant until Mrs. Roberts noted the 2001 Guinness record holder while reading aloud from the current edition to her two young sons one night.

After submitting photos, a video and a sworn statement from the Oakland County horticultural agent to Guinness this January, the Roberts were granted record-holding status for the 2002 edition of the book.

It created a stir in the local press, and among family and friends.

But fame — even for flowers — is fleeting.

The burgeoning Hemker monster may go over 900 flowers this week, though the blooms will fade out and the seed heads emerge, pleasing a sizable portion of the local bird population. But someone, somewhere, is no doubt dreaming of an even lusher plant, perhaps with a thousand flowers shifting in the wind.

Giant sunflowers, like giant pumpkins, fascinate gardeners who believe bigger is better. And who can blame them?

With names like Sunzilla, Multi-Headed King Kong, Skyscraper, Russian Giant, Paul Bunyan and Titan, big sunflowers have a very specific cachet.

Mr. Hemker's record-setter is just one of the bunch, though. Guinness also lists the "Tallest Domestically Grown Sunflower," grown by an astonished Dutch farmer who managed to coax his plant to a height of over 25 feet, back in 1986.


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