MONKTON, Md. — They screech to a stop on busy thoroughfares, park willy-nilly on the side of the road and hoist their babies, dogs and each other to be photographed amid the golden blooms.
Once a charming local secret, sunflower seeking has become an Instagram- and Facebook-fueled phenomenon, with picture-taking hordes overrunning parts of Maryland’s countryside.
“They’ve become chaotically popular,” said Kate Dallam, a Bel Air dairy farmer whose patch of the yellow-and-black flowers draws gawkers every year. “The sunflowers have taken over.”
Dallam, whose Broom’s Bloom Dairy has been in her husband’s family since the 1700s, grew an acre and a half of sunflowers this year because their customers like them — they’re a sideshow to the farm’s main event, the homemade ice cream it sells. The blooms spent, the farmers mowed down the drooping flowers on Tuesday, joking it was the best day they’d had all month.
But close to 20 miles to the west, the area’s most famous sunflower field continues to attract so many visitors that this weekend, the Bel Air barracks of the Maryland State Police was compelled to issue a terse request on its Facebook page:
“Please do not stop along Jarrettsville Pike north of Hess Rd to photograph the sunflower field. It creates a tremendous traffic hazard as well as a danger to the pedestrians.”
“People completely ignored it,” said Cindy Franzoni who owns the Verdant Valley Farm, which includes the field, with her husband, Jim.
The holiday weekend drew big crowds — among them, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and his family. (A team spokesman confirmed that Flacco dropped by but declined to share any photos he might have taken.)
The Franzonis lease the 100-acre field to Clear Meadow Farm, which she said grows the sunflowers for seed and oil every other year. Clear Meadow farmers declined an interview, saying the sunflowers do not need “any more publicity” and have created a “traffic issue and potential danger.”
The three-day Labor Day weekend coincided this year with what are likely the final days of “majesty” for the short-blooming flowers, Franzoni said. Fields farther away from the road were planted later, though, and should be blooming for their first-ever Sunflower Festival on Sunday.
But if you do not have a ticket for the festival, stay away, Franzoni said. Verdant Valley initially stopped selling tickets after 750 were quickly purchased, relented, but then stopped again after selling another 130 tickets in six minutes.
Those with tickets have been instructed to park at a location in Monkton, where they will be wrist-banded and shuttled to a field where there will be music, food and, of course, ample photo ops.
Franzoni said she hasn’t heard of any problems caused by the crowds, noting that peak bloom time lasts only two weeks.
Maryland State Police Sgt. Joseph Comer said that police tried to keep traffic moving and to clear the roadside but didn’t ticket anyone. There were no reports of accidents, he said.
“People pretty much, they understand,” Comer said. “We don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
He said traffic was so heavy that people had trouble getting into the Royal Farms across the street from the field. “Some people couldn’t get in to buy gas,” he said.
Store employees declined to comment and a message left with the store’s headquarters was not answered.
On Tuesday, drivers regularly pulled over on the grass on the side of the road, and camera- and cellphone-bearing sunflower fanciers got out. They posed with babies, dogs and each other, a late-summer version of the leaf-peepers who flock to New England in the fall or the bluebonnet seekers who descend on Texas fields in the spring.
Charles and Jolly Barba drove nearly four hours from Williamsburg, Virginia, with their 1-month-old daughter, Jenica Claire.
“It’s for my birthday celebration,” said Jolly Barba, who turns 23 on Wednesday and pronounced the field “awesome.”
They had someone take their picture in the “signature” pose they strike — he lifts her in the air — and chatted with other sunflower viewers before heading to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
Others visiting lived closer, but were no less enamored of the vista.
“I thought I had to go to Tuscany to see something like this,” said Linda Swaydis, 62, of Towson, a social worker who took Tuesday off when she realized the brief sunflower blooming season was nearly over. “It’s really spectacular.”
She’s taken about a thousand pictures of the field, and enjoys adding special effects with computer software or framing prints to give to friends.
Some visitors strolled through narrow openings to fully surround themselves with sunflowers.
They weren’t alone. Christine Peacock, 24, shrieked as she got up close and personal with one flower — and a bee. She and her sister, Jen Peacock, 27, who live in Baltimore’s Hamilton neighborhood, were just “cruising” in the area and decided to stop.
Jen had been by over the weekend — she spotted Flacco — and decided her sister had to see it.
“I’ve never been, but I’ve seen all the pictures on the internet,” Christine said.
For Ralph Volk, 53, the field is a nice respite on his commute from home in Bel Air to work — he’s a Baltimore County police officer assigned to Parkville.
“I can stare at the farm for a few minutes,” said Volk, a 30-year veteran of the force. “You can daydream. You can look and reflect. … I can escape a little when I see this.”
The Verdant Valley Farm has an “honesty box” where people are encouraged to leave a dollar per stem that they take, or $5 for six of them. Half the funds go to Make-a-Wish, and some of the proceeds from the festival will go to charity as well.
While the field on Jarrettsville Pike is the area’s grande sunflower dame, others in the area have similarly seen a boom in lookie-sees. Kate Dallam of Broom’s Bloom attributes that to social media, which is filled with photos of the Provence-like swaths of sunflowers.
Dallam said her farm’s foray into the craze was quite unplanned. Some six or seven years ago, she thinks, their corn seed vendor happened to have an extra bag of sunflower seeds — from a batch he had sold to Clear Meadow Farm, Dallam said. Her husband, David Dallam, knowing her fondness for the flowers, decided to plant a couple of acres as a surprise for her.
Dallam said their farm has plenty of parking so there’s less of an issue with crowds, but even so, people have swarmed into the field and complain that their lot has become jammed up or dangerous. Some people don’t understand that the bloom period is brief and unpredictable.
“They start calling in April, and they’ll still be calling in late October,” Dallam said. “They’ll come out to the field (after peak bloom) and it looks horrible and then they’re sad. Or there will be long, long, long lines and the parking lot is jammed with cars and there are children all over, and it’s frustrating.”
On a happier note, she knows of four couples who have gotten engaged in her patch, and high school students like to take their senior pictures there. She’s heard of people dragging in couches for arty portraits, which is no problem for them because they don’t harvest the sunflowers.
“It’s not a crop for us,” Dallam said, “so we’re laid back.”
For all the hassles, she knows the flowers bring in a lot of customers who then buy ice cream cones — 1,752 of them two Sundays ago — and other farm fare.
“A normal Sunday is half of that,” she said.
At the Franzonis’ field, the festival will mark the end of the season. The sunflower heads will droop, the seeds will dry out and then in about a month or so they will be harvested.
“It is,” she said, “their final bow.”
Information from: The Baltimore Sun, http://www.baltimoresun.com