Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Archive for September 12th, 2011

A sunflower is a sunflower is a sunflower—not

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During the quarter of a year that this column has existed, I’ve shown more pictures of Helianthus annuus than of any other native species, proof, I think you’ll agree, that the so-called common sunflower is anything but common. And now I’m here to say that there’s more than one kind of sunflower in central Texas. While colonies of the best-known type of sunflower reach their peak in June or July and then gradually diminish through the summer until only stray plants here or there produce flowers into the fall, another species of sunflower, Helianthus maximiliani, doesn’t make its earliest flowering appearance until the end of August or the beginning of September. The Maximilian sunflower is a less-coarse plant, and it tends to grow in a single column rather than branching out. Where the leaves of the regular sunflower are broad, those of the Maximilian sunflower are narrow; the two sides of each leaf have a strong tendency to fold up along the midline, and that midline, rather than being straight, usually forms an arc. If all this sounds too much like a lesson in solid geometry, the photograph makes it wordlessly clear.

When I looked at the USDA map for Helianthus maximiliani, I was surprised to learn that the species has been found growing in at least some parts of most American states and Canadian provinces. In spite of that wide distribution, many in the general public have still never heard of Maximilian sunflowers.

I took this picture on September 7 at the prairie restoration on the south side of Austin’s former Mueller Airport. Because of the recent heat and lack of rain, the Maximilian sunflower plants were showing signs of stress, and quite a few of them had produced flowers that dried up before they could mature. Because of the continuing drought, skies in recent photographs in this blog have been a very bright blue, but if the sky in today’s picture seems more pallid, it’s not an illusion. No, there was a haze in the sky on September 7, and unfortunately it was due to drifting smoke from the wildfires that continued to burn large expanses of the forest (and 1400 houses!) in Bastrop County, some 30 miles east of Austin.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

September 12, 2011 at 6:02 AM

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