story by LIESEL SCHMIDT
The world has collectively held its breath since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine at the beginning of 2022, watching, waiting and praying for peace through victory without causing another world war. We watch news and videos of the conflict and fallout online, wondering what will come of it. After seeing the highly publicized video of an elderly Ukrainian woman boldly offering sunflower seeds to a heavily armed Russian soldier and telling him that flowers would mark his grave on Ukrainian soil, Alexandria resident and business owner Marc Leon was inspired to plant sunflowers in support of Ukraine.
“Take these seeds and put them in your pockets so at least sunflowers will grow when you all lie down here.”
As bold and angry as those words spoken to the Russian soldier may have been, Leon’s sunflowers are a quiet protest of the conflict and occupation. Rather than simply planting them in his own yard, Leon has been giving the entire community of Alexandria the gift of their beauty.
“I’d heard of other cities planting sunflowers and people planting them in their yards, so I figured I’d give it [a] go and support Ukraine at the same time as I was beautifying the city,” says Leon, who moved to Alexandria in the mid-90s and owns FSI Inspections. “It didn’t make sense to just plant them in my yard where no one would see them, so I planted them in public places like the medians so that everyone could enjoy them.”
Leon’s green thumb and enthusiasm for gardening developed during the pandemic, when he started a vegetable garden and discovered that he was “kind of good at it — I learned everything from YouTube.” But that video of the old woman in Ukraine was what sealed it for Leon.
Now, anyone who comes to Alexandria can see the fruit of Leon’s labors: bright, sunshiny flowers that stand in hope that one day, the Ukrainian people will be free from the horrors of their Russian oppressors. Leon’s fingerprints can be found all around Old Town on Duke, Henry, South Washington and King Streets.
Naturally, beautifying city property begs the question of who is footing the bill and whether Leon has official approval for his project. Reaching out to the mayor’s office has been unsuccessful, but still, Leon plants his flowers and pays for everything out of pocket, happy to do something for the local community as well as the people of Ukraine. “I asked and never heard back, so I just went ahead and did it,” he explains. “I’m sure the mayor has more important things to do than worry about what I’m doing and supporting Ukraine is just the right thing to do.”
As for what Leon gets out of his work, he simply says, “I don’t know if I’m truly accomplishing anything in the grand scheme of things, but if it makes at least one person smile and brightens their day a bit, then I’ve accomplished my mission. Every now and then, someone passing by will say something while I’m working about how beautiful things look or a car will beep their horn and wave.”
“I don’t know if I’m truly accomplishing anything in the grand scheme of things, but if it makes at least one person smile and brightens their day a bit, then I’ve accomplished my mission." - Marc Leon
Clearly, Leon invests not only money into the project, but also time. “I grow the sunflowers from seed inside and transplant them to the medians,” he says. “I’ll also water them when needed, so I spend [a] couple of hours a week working on this.”
Fellow member of the business community Vanessa Moore deeply respects Leon’s commitment to his cause as well as the way the local community is benefitting from his work. “I can appreciate Marc’s desire to give back to the city's residents ‘under the radar,’” says Moore, who owns UnWined. “He's a super busy man, but makes the most of the flexibility and occasional in-between-appointment time that entrepreneurship provides. It's a win-win for Alexandrians and his newfound love of gardening. Marc is solid gold. I have long admired his commitment to family, volunteer projects and his business acumen. He never misses an opportunity to make a partner, client or friend feel appreciated — and the sunflowers are an extension of that. I think Marc's DIY, altruistic attitude is an inspiration to others and will make his children proud. No one knows he's doing this because he’s not showy and doesn’t need the spotlight or the credit for doing something selfless. And funny enough, he drives a big white, very official looking truck, so he blends right in to other beautification efforts around town.”
As the Ukraine crisis continues, so do Leon’s intentions for beautifying Alexandria. “I’ll keep planting sunflowers until Ukraine wins back all their territory,” he says. “I enjoy doing it. It makes me happy and the people who know about my sunflower mission love it. Plus, who doesn’t like beautiful sunflowers sprouting up all over town?”