Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

A triangular array of gorgeous Maximilian sunflowers

with 63 comments

October 27th was the first completely sunny day here for the past two months, so out I went that morning to photograph my first Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani) of the season. As I drove around on the Blackland Prairie in northeast Austin and adjacent Pflugerville and Round Rock, I ended up taking pictures at seven sites in what stretched to over five hours. In the southeast quadrant of A.W. Grimes Blvd. and Louis Henna Blvd. in Round Rock I photographed this triangular floral display:

As dazzling a display of yellow as it was, I’m sorry to tell you that these flowers were growing all by themselves at a construction site, so this was most likely the last time any Maximilian sunflowers would be there. To see the scene as it actually was and to imagine yourself in my place as I scrunched close to the ground and worked hard to isolate the flowers from all the distracting human elements around them, go ahead and click the tiny thumbnail below.

As the two photographs taken together demonstrate, there are times when even in the unlikeliest of places “pure” nature photography is still possible.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

October 30, 2018 at 4:48 AM

63 Responses

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  1. i love sunflowers!


    October 30, 2018 at 4:53 AM

    • Are you familiar with Maximilian sunflowers? They don’t branch the way regular sunflowers plants do, and often can be seen tall and erect.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 30, 2018 at 5:54 AM

      • Ah, that explains it


        October 30, 2018 at 6:00 AM

        • Another difference is that Maximilian sunflowers don’t start blooming until late summer and are at their peak in the fall. In contrast, the peak blooming season for regular sunflowers is late spring.

          Steve Schwartzman

          October 30, 2018 at 6:15 AM

  2. You could save the seeds…..


    October 30, 2018 at 5:03 AM

    • I could, but I assume that after construction is finished the site will get landscaped with alien plants, especially grass, and from then on whoever maintains the place will get rid of any native plant that dares to spring up there. That’s what happened in my part of town to a property on which plenty of sunflowers sprang up during the years when the place sat idle. All through the eventual development, which was slow and went on for a couple of years, at least some sunflowers kept coming up, but in the end the last ones which had hung on at the fringes finally got removed and replaced with grass.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 30, 2018 at 5:51 AM

  3. That steamroller could be handy to flatten distractions in the background.

    Robert Parker

    October 30, 2018 at 5:40 AM

  4. Wasn’t last weekend’s sunshine great? You were the lucky one, though. I found Maximilians on Saturday, too, but they already were past their prime and were busy forming seedheads; there were plenty of flowers, but no thick displays of blooms like this one.

    Still, to find them at all was a delight. Like yours, they were tucked into an odd corner: a strip of land between two farm to market roads that run parallel to each other for a bit. They’re only about 45 minutes away, and I’m thinking about a revisit this morning before work, just in case developing buds are in bloom now. Tomorrow’s weather could put even more of them on the ground.

    The triangular shape these stalks have formed reminds me of corn shocks. Half-a-century ago, they were a common sight in fields; now, they seem to have been consigned to fall decorations at ranch gates and in suburban front yards.


    October 30, 2018 at 6:12 AM

    • Yes, the sunshine was long overdue. We’d seen some Maximilians in north Austin the previous weekend when drove up to meet some friends at a restaurant. I hoped I wouldn’t be too late this past weekend, and you can see I wasn’t. In fact I photographed gloriously fresh Maximilian sunflowers at six of the seven sites I visited that day, and I could’ve done so at the seventh too except by then I was Max(imilian)ed out and concentrated on goldenrod instead. My assumption is that the many cloudy days and then the record cold temperature we had here pushed the Maximilian sunflowers to bloom later than usual. Good luck on finding some fresh flower heads this morning in that odd corner.

      Corn shocks: that’s something I haven’t thought about in decades. Even though I grew up on Long Island, where there weren’t any corn shocks, I still have a mental image of what you’re referring to. I just confirmed it by looking at some actual images:


      Steve Schwartzman

      October 30, 2018 at 6:37 AM

  5. You are a wizard, Steve. I have no idea how you managed to expunge the construction equipment from your glorious shot. Poor Max.


    October 30, 2018 at 8:59 AM

    • In this case, with enough trying, I succeeded. At other times I haven’t managed to get what I want but have still come away with something, often a closeup. For this group of Maximilian sunflowers, I did take a few pictures where I closed in on the dense central cluster of flower heads, in the process sacrificing the shape of the group and all that blue sky surrounding everything.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 30, 2018 at 11:07 AM

      • I am ever more appreciative of where I live, with all of its faults. I don’t think I could take watching the bulldozers wipe out one lovely place after another.


        November 1, 2018 at 11:12 AM

        • Yes, it’s been discouraging over the last five years to witness the relentless pace of development on the prairie side of Austin. I’ve lost probably two dozen sites there over that period.

          Steve Schwartzman

          November 1, 2018 at 11:27 AM

          • Oh, that is worse than I thought. So sad. I’m happy that you and Eve have been able to travel so much, and see lots of beautiful things.


            November 2, 2018 at 10:02 AM

            • Yes, it’s bad. The sites weren’t “mine” except insofar as I took pictures on them, but I’ll always remember those pieces of land as they were. Most of the places we visit when traveling are parks, preserves, and such, and therefore protected.

              Steve Schwartzman

              November 2, 2018 at 10:19 AM

              • At least Lady Bird Johnson had the foresight to set aside some land and educate people about the value of native plants.


                November 3, 2018 at 9:03 AM

                • Yes indeed. Austin also has its share of other protected properties, though they tend to be on the hilly west side of town because that’s where wealthier people tend to live. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (originally called the Wildflower Research Center) started out on the east side of town but within just a few years moved to its current property, where it most likely could attract more visitors and donations.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  November 3, 2018 at 10:30 AM

                • Oh, I see. It so often comes down to dollars. We have a new person in charge of Lake County Forest Preserves, and his motivation seems to be all about money. I’m starting to see some worrying things going on. Two very beautiful sites, with wonderful buildings, have been closed to the public and will probably be torn down. Both of these were well-loved, including one which was our nationally accredited museum. Now everything is being concentrated in a couple of corporation-like profit centers.


                  November 4, 2018 at 8:42 AM

                • I remember one of those buildings, even though we didn’t go inside (preferring to spend our limited time in nature). Sorry to hear they’re likely on their way out.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  November 4, 2018 at 10:05 AM

                • I probably didn’t take you to any of them as they are really more a local interest. Or, they were.


                  November 5, 2018 at 8:37 AM

                • You did offer to take us but in the end we decided to do something outdoorsy.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  November 5, 2018 at 8:56 AM

                • Oh that’s right. Now the museum is housed in a corporate building and has lost its spark.


                  November 6, 2018 at 9:04 AM

      • Remind me I said that come January and I’m whining about the cold!


        November 1, 2018 at 11:12 AM

        • January is close enough that I think you’ll remember on your own without needing a reminder from me.

          Steve Schwartzman

          November 1, 2018 at 11:28 AM

          • You have a point. We are hanging in there with upper 50’s lately, which is nice. There was even a little snake out basking the last time I was out on the trail.


            November 2, 2018 at 10:02 AM

            • Enjoy your pleasant weather while it lasts.

              Steve Schwartzman

              November 2, 2018 at 10:21 AM

              • Thank you. It has been really nice to go out with only a sweater. With a lot of the leaves down, I spotted an owl in a neighbor’s tree. It was dusk and pretty high up, but given its size, I’m thinking a great horned owl.


                November 3, 2018 at 9:02 AM

                • After two months of overcast we’ve been having some pleasant fall days, too. Any owls are as hard to spot as ever, given that almost all the leaves are still on the trees. And of course we still have wildflowers.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  November 3, 2018 at 9:22 AM

                • Yes, sadly, our flowers are gone and a lot of trees are bare. In a lot of yards are specimen trees in wonderful reds, oranges and glowing yellows. When their leaves fall they leave vibrant puddles of color at the tree’s feet.


                  November 4, 2018 at 8:49 AM

                • At least you had your good northern fall foliage. As you know, that’s something in short supply down here.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  November 4, 2018 at 10:03 AM

                • Yes and now we have all the leaves to rustle through when we walk.


                  November 5, 2018 at 8:38 AM

                • So now you look forward to being a rustler. Just don’t make it of cattle.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  November 5, 2018 at 8:58 AM

                • No, no. Not cattle. Just leaves. And soon I must be a wrangler of them.


                  November 6, 2018 at 9:03 AM

                • While wearing Wrangler jeans?

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  November 6, 2018 at 11:41 AM

                • And spurs. Now if I could just train Pete to round ’em up…


                  November 7, 2018 at 9:31 AM

  6. They are beautiful, Steve!

    Lavinia Ross

    October 30, 2018 at 9:32 AM

    • That they are, Lavinia. This species is one of our autumn delights. Sorry it doesn’t make it into Oregon.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 30, 2018 at 11:08 AM

  7. How awesome the thought that you gave the Maximilian sunflowers their portrait capture! Very well done after seeing the thumbnail shot. You took on the challenge and succeeded beautifully! 🙂


    October 30, 2018 at 11:44 AM

    • Thanks, Donna. As I was driving by I saw what the second photo shows, hesitated, and made myself stop. My first thought was simply to document yet another example of how the prairie keeps on getting developed. Once I was there, I set myself the challenge of isolating the sunflowers from all the human stuff around them.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 30, 2018 at 1:24 PM

      • You did well. While the 2nd photo makes me sad, I’m wowed by the fact that you found a way to create Max’s portrait. Thank you!

        Jenny Meadows

        October 30, 2018 at 11:24 PM

        • You’re welcome, and thanks for appreciating that. You’re the second commenter to personalize “Max.” And yes, it is sad to witness so much of the prairie getting developed.

          Steve Schwartzman

          October 31, 2018 at 6:19 AM

          • What’s sadder to me is that so many developers and buyers consider native plants weeds and want them gone. If they only understood how low-maintenance they are AND beautiful and how aligned they are with the eco system …..

            Jenny Meadows

            October 31, 2018 at 6:31 PM

            • I’ve been lamenting and speaking against that shortsighted view for two decades. Alas, for the most part not much has changed. Practically everyone still wants a closely cropped lawn devoid of anything native.

              Steve Schwartzman

              October 31, 2018 at 8:37 PM

  8. You must be a contortionist, among your many talents!


    October 30, 2018 at 2:39 PM

    • More than my body would sometimes like to be, but if that’s what it takes, then so be it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 30, 2018 at 2:55 PM

  9. Very nice save!


    October 31, 2018 at 5:12 PM

    • That’s an original way of putting it. Ultimately I couldn’t save the sunflowers, but I could and did save them in photographs.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 31, 2018 at 7:33 PM

  10. Did you tell me earlier that this is the state flower of Kansas?


    October 31, 2018 at 9:46 PM

    • It’s the common sunflower, Helianthus annuus, that’s the state flower of Kansas. Surprisingly, at least to me, is the fact that no other state has any kind of sunflower as its state flower. It’s also disappointing to me that many states have official flowers that aren’t native there:


      Steve Schwartzman

      November 1, 2018 at 5:22 AM

      • Surprisingly? I do not think of sunflower as a flower that suits any other state quite like it suits Kansas! I suppose it could also suit the states around Kansas, such as Missouri, Oklahoma, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. The non native flowers are rather unimaginative choices for state flowers. What is the point of something that is not special to the state. When we were trying to identify a town flower for Los Gatos, my only requirements were that the flower (and tree) were either native, or of cultural significance. For example, the prune blossom is the town flower of Campbell because prune orchards were the most common orchards there for so long. However, people were voting for really odd (stupidly odd!) flowers that they saw while on vacation in France or Hawaii, or someplace that has nothing in common with Los Gatos. They thought that their choices should be the right choices just because they happened to like them.


        November 1, 2018 at 11:08 PM

        • As you say, some states have gone for cultural significance. When Texas was deciding on a state flower, some people pushed the candidacy of the cotton blossom, given that Texas had been (and maybe still was) the greatest producer of cotton in the world.

          When I said I was surprised that no state other than Kansas had chosen a sunflower, I was thinking (as is my wont) of wild sunflowers rather than the cultivated varieties with large heads that have been developed from the wild originals. Wild sunflowers can fill a field with yellow:


          It does seem strange in the Los Gatos case that people were proposing flowers they’d happened to see in exotic places that had nothing to do with the town.

          Steve Schwartzman

          November 2, 2018 at 7:27 AM

          • Well, Los Gatos is a strange place, and very few of us are actually from here.


            November 2, 2018 at 11:36 PM

  11. I find it inspiring that you managed to create such a beautiful image from messy clutter. It makes me happy that you found a way to do that, thanks for sharing both photos!


    November 1, 2018 at 2:04 AM

    • You’re welcome. Even without human clutter, of which there’s plenty, I still sometimes end up contorting myself to get a good angle for a wildflower portrait. In this case I also included the picture with the human clutter so people could see the unfortunately familiar sight of more prairie being lost to development.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 1, 2018 at 5:26 AM

  12. What a great article! I didn’t know that about the ponga or the wheki. I see all of them in the hills around Nelson. I see the Dicksonia and the wheki squarrosa the most. I think of tree fern, not just silver fern. Both are growing in a reserve near our house. I see the hairy koru most frequently.

    Jenny Meadows

    November 1, 2018 at 8:27 PM

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