The handsome king was transplanting a few seedlings from the greenhouse to a plot of earth in the centre of his garden. His menservants and maidservants, footmen and serving boys were crowded anxiously around him. Yet the king refused to let any of them handle the task.
"Such an eccentric!" giggled one of the kitchen maids. "Imagine that – a king who loves gardening!"
"Hush, you!" the butler reprimanded, overhearing her remark as he entered the kitchen. Mortified at being caught gossiping about His Majesty, the blushing maid bent her head to the task of peeling the onions for dinner.
Privately, however, the butler's thoughts ran along similar lines. Who had ever seen a king who preferred – no, insisted – on doing all the hands-on work himself? The sowing and transplanting and fertilising, the weeding and pruning, even the watering... the butler repressed a shudder. It almost seemed as if His Majesty enjoyed getting dirt under his fingernails!
Really, the butler reflected, gardening had become almost an obsession with the king. The palace grounds were filled with every bush, tree, flower and shrub imaginable. Well, at least His Majesty didn't neglect his duties as monarch of the kingdom. There was a lot to be said for that. The butler sighed and shrugged philosophically. His Majesty was an excellent king, in fact, and shouldn't be grudged a few quirks and foibles... certainly he could afford to indulge in his hobby, that was for certain!
The king was not unaware of the whispers and speculation amongst his staff. He himself could not truly explain his fascination with his garden. In truth, it was not gardening itself that he loved; no, not the activity, but rather the plants within his garden. Each one was a separate individual to him. He knew each by both its scientific and common names; he knew each one's unique characteristics and the optimum conditions required for it to flourish.
Hence his excitement that day: it was now springtime, and the ground had thawed completely. Finally, it was time to transplant the sunflower seedlings into a plot of earth in the garden. This particular bed of sunflowers was going to be the showpiece of his garden! They would have beautiful, showy large petals and stand tall, turning their heads towards the sun.
Sure enough, as the king lavished his sunflower seedlings with tender care, they thrived, just like every other plant in his garden. Oh, it was worth the wait just to see the first buds begin to blossom and bloom.
Word had spread of the king's unusual hobby and the magnificent garden of his creation. People began coming from far and near as much to catch a glimpse of the eccentric king as to view the beautifully landscaped grounds of his palace. Inevitably, they left with exclamations of pleasure on their lips, words of praise trailing in their wake.
The sunflowers, being the showpiece of the king's garden, naturally attracted much attention. Unfortunately, they became dissatisfied with all the acclamation. Each flower began to crave recognition in its own right.
Thus they began squabbling amongst themselves as to which of them was the most important and most beautiful. Eventually, this sparked off an on-going competition between them as to who could grow the tallest, who could form the most number of leaves, who could develop the biggest blossoms and who could produce the brightest petals. As each tried to outdo the other, there was much gossiping, backbiting, name-calling, boasting and preening.
Naturally, the king knew of the sunflowers' dissatisfaction and discontent. He was very disappointed. The sunflowers were his and he had planted them for his pleasure. But now, it was not his approval that they sought! – In the beginning, as he had carefully sown each seed in the nourishing, fertile earth, he had already assured them that each of them was equally important to him. He had celebrated the appearance of each first green shoot pushing its way out into the sun-lit air and rejoiced at the sight of each first tiny leaf forming on its slender stalk. Apparently, the sunflowers had forgotten all this.
In fact, they were so caught up in their petty contests, trying to out-do each other, that they failed to realise how much the king betrayed his love for them through his tender care. He would gently part their stalks and carefully examine each leaf, removing any caterpillars and crushing any snails. He would prune their leaves, prepare just the ideal fertiliser mixture for them, patiently pull out each weed that dared to take up any space in their bed of earth... Sometimes, he would simply stroke their petals, delighting in the delicate softness whilst feasting his eyes on their beauty. Yes, the king told his rebellious sunflowers of his love in a thousand different ways, but they refused to hear. It hurt him that they could not see or did not care how very precious each of them was to him. Instead, they preferred to compete for the attention of the visitors who came to admire his garden.
However, there was a wilful sunflower who refused to be caught up in all the arguments of the other sunflowers around her. She refused to participate in their competitions; instead, she set her own terms. Stubborn and headstrong, the wilful sunflower determined to be different. She did not want to be like all the rest. There was to be no question of comparisons. She would be unique!
So she strained and she strained until finally, she managed to coax a tinge of bright blue into her bright yellow petals. Still dissatisfied, she continued pushing herself until she discovered how to manufacture a faint, sweet scent. Tired but happy, she stood proudly and presented herself to the world, confident that none of the other sunflowers could hold a candle to her.
Walking in his garden the next morning, the puzzled king searched for the source of the unfamiliar fragrance. When his eyes alighted upon the unusual sunflower, he couldn't restrain a surprised laugh.
But as he approached her, the king's laughter died abruptly. "My precious flower, what are you doing to yourself?" he murmured sadly, bending his head to inspect the changes in her. "Don't you know you are unique as you are? You don't have to try so hard to make yourself special..."
However, the wind carried his softly spoken words away. The wilful sunflower felt only that the king was admiring her unusual beauty. She was glad that she gave him pleasure. Oh, she was not like the other sunflowers who vexed the king by craving the visitors' acclaim; surely, surely the king would be most pleased with her! Unaware of His Majesty's true feelings, she preened, feeling proud of herself.
The king did not love his wilful sunflower any the less for her attempt to be different and to separate herself from the rest. He did not remove her from the sunflower patch, nor indeed grant her any special attention compared to the other sunflowers.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the visitors to the king's garden. The wilful sunflower really stood out like a sore thumb in the midst of her sister sunflowers. The visitors could not possibly miss her! Most of the time, their comments were scrupulously polite and carefully neutral – after all, they did not wish to offend the king, even if His Majesty was a tad eccentric. "Oh, how unusual!" they would exclaim. Some even affectedly drawled, "Oh, how darling!"
The other sunflowers were embarrassed at the wilful sunflower's blatant differentness, and the attention she drew as a result. They spoke derisively about her and sneered at her. When visitors came, they tried to lean their stalks as far away from her as possible to avoid being associated with her. "She's not one of us," they cried silently. "She's weird," they jeered.
The poor wilful sunflower found herself belittled at every turn, her differentness spoken of as something to be despised and pitied, a weakness to be ashamed of rather than a strength to take pride in. She began to question whether being different was such a good thing after all. Perhaps there was wisdom in conformity and merit in going with the flow...
Matters came to a head one day when she overheard two visitors covertly whispering to one another as they walked past the sunflower bed.
"How ghastly! Imagine, bright blue colour on a sunflower," exclaimed one.
"Yes, it's totally absurd. Who ever heard of a sunflower having tinges of blue on its petals?" smirked another. "And scent, too!"
"I can't think why the king tolerates that eyesore in his bed of flowers," continued the first. "If I were His Majesty, I'd get rid of it. That ridiculous blue-tinged one quite ruins the magnificent sight."
Stunned, the wilful sunflower pondered the words of the two visitors. Could it be that her very differentness was bringing ridicule to the king? She had never considered that possibility before. Oh, she had wanted His Majesty to be so proud of her, but instead people were laughing at him because of her!
The wilful sunflower suddenly felt quite weary of being different from the rest of the sunflowers. There was no glory in being different, only pain and shame and rejection. She fought to make herself like the others once again.
Yet her wilfulness would not be suppressed, and she could never be content to simply blend in with the rest of her fellow sunflowers. This time, she was determined to be different – but in the most positive way imaginable. She would be different by becoming the biggest, most beautiful sunflower in the whole patch! And so she entered the competitive world of the other sunflowers, determined to beat them at their own game; more, desirous of bringing glory to the king, whom she loved.
The wilful sunflower strained and strained until she had the yellowest of yellow petals. Then she forced herself to grow and grow until hers was the largest flower among all the other sunflowers. Finally, pleased with the results of her efforts, she stood and confidently lifted her head to the sun, displaying herself and her achievement for all to see. Surely now nothing but acclaim would come her way... and His Majesty would be so proud of her!
All her hopes and dreams came true. The visitors who came to view the king's garden were unequivocal in their praise for the wilful sunflower. Lavish compliments were paid to her. Even the other sunflowers forsook envy and crowded around her happily, hoping to catch a little of the limelight. They approved of this new look of hers. Finally, they need not be humiliated to own her their sister! Only the king himself said nothing. Her great beauty caused him to smile in appreciation, but his eyes remained sad as they rested upon her. Privately he shook his head gravely, for his wilful sunflower still had not accepted that she was special and precious in her own right.
The extravagant acclaim and intoxicating interest of the various visitors gave the wilful sunflower great joy. However, as time passed, the potency of their praise failed to induce the same glow of well-being and satisfaction as it had before. Reflecting on her perverse discontent, the wilful sunflower realised that she was being commended on what she had made of herself, what she had achieved. If she had never set out to change herself, or if she had been unsuccessful in her goal, the visitors to the king's garden would likely never have given her a second look – and her sister sunflowers would still be bitching among themselves, sparing her nary a second thought.
This realisation made it all seem so hollow. The approval, the attention, the praises all felt meaningless and, somehow, insincere. It was not she, herself, whom they were all celebrating. It was what she had become.
Worse still, before long, the wilful sunflower became exhausted, straining to continually maintain her image as the most gorgeous sunflower in the king's garden. She no longer placed any value on the notice and acclaim of the visitors or the approval and acceptance of her fellow sunflowers. The king's silence began to shriek in her ears. What did he really think? If His Majesty was pleased, then she would be content... But to give up her struggle to be beautiful now, when she didn't know the king's mind, would be to lose everything. So she held on by sheer strength of will. Her lovely exterior masked the internal turmoil that no one ever saw.
One evening, as the king was tending to his sunflowers in the fading light of day when all the visitors had left, the wilful sunflower swayed with fatigue. She was tired, just so tired of trying so hard... The king's gentle touch as he checked her leaves for caterpillars and other pests made her long to just relax and leave herself in His Majesty's strong and capable hands.
As she gave up the battle against herself, the king, his face full of compassion and love, anchored a sturdy stick into the ground next to her to provide greater support for her to lean on. The flimsy twig that had been in its place he removed and tossed aside. With great tenderness, he wound a piece of wire around her stalk to further support her against the stick. Then he watered the ground around her roots with a special mixture of concentrated fertilisers.
"Now that you've given up trying to please everyone, know that you please me," he whispered, cupping his hands under her fragile petals, lifting her face to his eyes. "You have always pleased me."