Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

A sunflower is a sunflower is a sunflower—not

with 14 comments

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

14 Responses

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  1. I have been planting native flowers in my gardens here. I love them. I have considered the wild sunflower. You may have convinced me.

    I have also been watching your wildfires in the news… it is heartbreaking.


    September 12, 2011 at 7:33 AM

    • Let’s hear it for our natives. There can never be too many wild sunflowers.

      Yes, the fires are still terrible.I know people in three of them who have lost something or almost everything.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 12, 2011 at 7:35 AM

    • PS: Should someone wonder… I do not collect my wildflowers from the wild. I order them from companies that grow them from their own stock! My current favorite resource is: http://www.prairiemoon.com/


      September 12, 2011 at 7:37 AM

  2. COOL!


    September 12, 2011 at 7:55 AM

  3. Outstanding image and a beautiful sunflower!


    September 12, 2011 at 10:44 PM

  4. […] last post showed you the top part of a flowering Maximilian sunflower plant, Helianthus maximiliani, looked at sideways and from slightly below. Today’s view lets you […]

  5. wow – I’ve never seen that before. I would not have recognised those as sunflowers. Our drought has broken. Our river systems on the east of the country and central southern Australia are connected. The Murray and Darling rivers are now staring to flow again after experiencing the worst drought and lowest level of water intake since the late 1890s. These rivers form a one million sq km water catchment area stretching over parts of South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, the ACT and Queensland. In essence – a vast part of the country and support the majority of the country’s population.
    Now Lake Eyre in SA has filled for the first time in decades thanks to flood waters that started in Queensland. I hope that your drought breaks soon

    Claire Takacs

    September 13, 2011 at 6:04 AM

    • I’m relieved that at least somebody’s drought has broken, Claire, though ours hasn’t, and the complex of wildfires some 35 miles east of Austin still hasn’t been put out completely.

      As for the Maximilian sunflower, it’s just one of the other species in the genus Helianthus, whose most familiar member is the “common” sunflower that we all love. The next post, which includes a close-up of a Maximilian flower head, should seem more sunflowery to you.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 13, 2011 at 6:30 AM

  6. […] that I was happy to find flowering on the prairie, as you’ve seen in the last post and the one before it, I noticed that the tip of a giant ragweed plant, Ambrosia trifida, had gotten stuck on the tip of […]

  7. […] the early Maximilian sunflowers, Helianthus maximiliani, that appeared in this column on September 12 and September 13? By now many more of them have come up and flowered, including this colony at the […]

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