Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

A new place for Maximilian sunflowers

with 23 comments

On October 19th, while driving home from Central Market along W. 45th St., I glimpsed a stand of Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani) on the west bank of Shoal Creek. Never having noticed any of those sunflowers there in other years, I went back the next morning to see what I could do with them. Getting in there wasn’t easy, but I scampered over rocks and pushed my way through a jungle of giant ragweed that had sprung up in the mostly dry creek bed. Then I struggled up the rough slope to get to the sunflowers. The first picture shows some of them beneath a line of paloverde saplings (Parkinsonia aculeata) that had spring up at the edge of the embankment.

Maximilian sunflowers often stand tall. They often lean, too, as in the second picture. It’s also not unusual to see a stalk that has bent so far over that it ended up with its flowers near or even on the ground. That’s what you see in the third photograph. Notice the narrowleaf sumpweed (Iva angustifolia), which had formed a carpet across the plateau atop the creek’s bank, along with some asters. The sunflower stalk’s sinuosity and the redness of its lower portion got my attention.

Below you get a better look at how colorful a Maximilian sunflower stalk sometimes is.

As of today there are still some Maximilian sunflowers brightening up central Texas.  

And here’s a relevant quotation: “My heart found its home long ago in the beauty, mystery, order and disorder of the flowering earth.” — Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson (known as Lady Bird), in a letter in Native Plants magazine, Fall 2002 issue.

© 2020 Steven Schwartzman


Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 13, 2020 at 4:33 AM

23 Responses

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  1. These are all lovely images, and well worth your “struggle” to photograph. It’s interesting to note them standing tall or not. When I see them here on the river bottom land and pecan orchard, they stand tall, often supported by other tall grasses. But up top on the more open landscape, they’re often leaning and close to the ground. I always thought maybe the winds up top caused this, but now I wonder if it’s the heaviness of so many blossoms.


    November 13, 2020 at 5:13 AM

    • As Arthur Hugh Clough wrote: “Say not the struggle nought availeth, / The labour and the wounds are vain….” In this case the struggle did avail, with these and other pictures being the fruits of my labor.

      You bring up the interesting question of why some Maximilian sunflowers stay erect while others lean or flop over. I think that whenever I’ve seen large enough groups of these plants, some individuals of each type have been present, so wind wouldn’t seem to account for the difference. I wonder if any biologists have done a study of that. Maybe it’s at least partly genetics, just as some people in the human species are tall and others short, some athletic and others not.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 13, 2020 at 7:54 AM

  2. Your zeal to take these photos of the Maximilian sunflowers in rough terrain is truly remarkable, Steve! A little bit of extra effort goes a long way to bring joy and rewards to the serious photographer.

    Peter Klopp

    November 13, 2020 at 7:48 AM

    • Thanks for appreciating the zeal (or foolhardiness!) that led to these pictures. I do sometimes push myself. After I’d parked, worked my way down into the creek bed, and walked over toward the colony of sunflowers I’d seen at a distance from the street, I wasn’t going to give up without what I’d come for, namely pictures, even though it wasn’t easy.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 13, 2020 at 8:01 AM

  3. I’m especially fond of the last photo. Given my limited experience with these sunflowers, I’ve never seen such a red stalk — or don’t remember one — but it certainly is attractive. On the other hand, I need to study my archives a bit. I’ve found some Maximilians in my Kansas photos; at the time, I didn’t recognized them for what they were.

    The sunflower/palo verde combination is nice, but I really like those slanted photos. You did a good job with the flowers that had been grounded, too. A week or so ago I was surprised to find a huge stand of these flowers on the Galveston/Brazoria county line. Some were standing tall (perhaps as much as 8′), some were leaning, and some were so long they’d gone horizontal. Since some of the long, horizontal stems still were a foot or two above the ground, I assumed it was weight that had pulled them over.

    I’m awash in Maximilian photos now, which amuses me greatly. As soon as I can decide which to show, I’ll do that.


    November 13, 2020 at 8:46 AM

    • From a dearth to a wealth of Maximilians, welcome. I look forward to seeing what you’ve found. I think this is my third Maximilian sunflower post for 2020 and I may yet have another. The recumbent stalk in today’s third picture made me aware for the first time of how red parts of the stalk can become; just goes to show that however familiar one is with a species, there’s always room for new observations. The leaning is something I’ve played up for years. You may remember commenting on the slant in 2015:


      While weight sometimes pulls these tall stalks over onto the ground, I’ve sometimes seen new growth at the tip turn back upwards in response to gravity; I’ve observed that in other species as well.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 13, 2020 at 10:46 AM

  4. I loved this post, Steve. That opening photo is gorgeous, and reeled me into your world of wildflowers. That you saw this new patch and came back to it, struggled and clambered through to it, and demonstrated the numerous beautiful sides to this Maximilian species was a great treat. Truly lovely quote from our wildflower hero.

    Jet Eliot

    November 13, 2020 at 9:34 AM

    • Hi, Jet. Central Texas is indeed a floral world, even into November; in fact I just got back from photographing more Maximilian sunflowers, along with four other wildflower species that are still flowering. In the early 2000s I sent a wildflower photograph to Lady Bird Johnson, who was in the last years of her life, and she sent back a thank-you letter.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 13, 2020 at 1:50 PM

      • Very cool that you sent Lady Bird a photo and very cool that you received a letter back from her!

        Jet Eliot

        November 14, 2020 at 7:22 PM

        • It’s a shame she didn’t live much longer. The photograph I sent was one I took out at the LBJ Ranch.

          Steve Schwartzman

          November 14, 2020 at 9:08 PM

  5. Love your detail and background of the colorful stem!


    November 13, 2020 at 10:44 AM

    • That colorful stem did it for me, too. When I was out photographing an hour ago I saw another one like that, red and somewhat sinuous. As for backgrounds, I often go for a color there that will complement the one of my subject in the foreground.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 13, 2020 at 1:52 PM

  6. They are gorgeous flowers and I love your detail of the stalk.


    November 13, 2020 at 9:46 PM

    • I was out photographing more of them this morning. I take it you’re familiar with this species, which grows in almost every American state.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 13, 2020 at 9:54 PM

  7. I’ve shared your struggle getting to a good vantage point for flowers on slopes. Usually worth it. I like the high key leaning shot and the nice look at the colorful stem.

    Steve Gingold

    November 14, 2020 at 3:56 AM

    • Yes, it’s usually worth the trouble, but sometimes my body, which has a mind of its own, disagrees. As for the colorful stem, I don’t know why I hadn’t made pictures of that feature till this year. Call me slow.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 14, 2020 at 4:49 AM

      • I agree, Slow. My body and my mind have more frequent disagreements as time passes.

        Steve Gingold

        November 14, 2020 at 4:52 AM

        • What hasn’t changed is “the vision thing.” I seem to be as adept as ever at conceiving pictures—assuming that I used to be reasonably adept at figuring out interesting ways to photograph things.

          Steve Schwartzman

          November 14, 2020 at 5:26 AM

  8. I would not have thought that the stalk one would be my favourite. The flowers seem ready to faint into a natural compost heap, fresh as they are.


    November 15, 2020 at 7:39 AM

    • I felt sorry for the face-down flowers, which are no good in that position for their purpose in life: pollination. As for the colorful stalk, I get the feeling that few people pay attention to it, given the appeal of the bright yellow flowers.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 15, 2020 at 7:43 AM

  9. You need to bring an assistant next time to film you in the struggle. That would be fun! I like the third photo – that’s one most people wouldn’t take because the plant has fallen down. So interesting to see. it’s funny how some plants just do that a lot. The purple stem with that intense yellow behind it is a great view. I think Lady Bird would have so enjoyed your view of Texas wildflowers. That’s another good quote, too. 🙂


    November 20, 2020 at 11:25 AM

    • I included the third photograph here precisely because it’s different not only from pictures that other people have taken, but from pictures I have myself (unless memory fails me). Maximilian sunflowers often grow quite tall, and it’s not unusual to see their flower spikes tilting or even falling entirely onto the ground. From a prone position the tips sometimes even start growing back up. As for purple sections of the stems on these plants, I realized I hadn’t paid enough attention to that, either actually or in photographs, and that it was time to do something about it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 20, 2020 at 3:43 PM

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