Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Two kinds of sunflowers in one morning

with 13 comments

I’ve never seen as many “common” sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) still flowering at the beginning of August as I have this year. Maybe it’s a consequence of the sustained freeze we endured back in February. Whatever the reason, as I drive around town now groups of those sunflowers seem to be everywhere. The picture above shows one flower head at a pond on Kulmbacher Dr. in far north Austin on the morning of July 31st. A little earlier that day I’d seen my first Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani) of the year at the corner of FM 1325 and Shoreline Drive, as shown below. Those typically fall-blooming sunflowers are a sign that despite the lingering of the common sunflowers botanical autumn is at hand.

In 1597, herbalist John Gerard commented: “The Indian Sun or golden floure of Peru is a plant of such stature and talnesse that in one Sommer being sowne of a seede in Aprill, it hath risen up to… fourteene foot in my garden, one floure was in weight three pound and two ounces, and crosse overthwart the floure by measure sixteene inches broad.”

From the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805 we have this: “Along the bottoms, which have a covering of high grass, we observe the sunflower blooming in great abundance. The Indians of the Missouri, and more especially those who do not cultivate maize, make great use of the seed of this plant for bread or in thickening their soup. They first parch and then pound it between two stones until it is reduced to a fine meal. Sometimes they add a portion of water, and drink it thus diluted: at other times they add a sufficient proportion of marrow grease to reduce it to the consistency of common dough and eat it in that manner. This last composition we preferred to all the rest, and thought it at that time a very palatable dish.”

And in the 1899 book The English Flower Garden, W. Robinson wrote: “It is true that not a few of this genus [Helianthus] are coarse and weedy… All the larger kinds are noble plants.” For me they’re all noble plants.

(I’ve interrupted the Portraits from Our Yard series for one day and will do so again periodically to keep you up to date with current botanical developments.)

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 2, 2021 at 4:29 AM

13 Responses

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  1. We have a couple of perennial sunflowers in the garden here and they’re big beasts! One is ‘Lemon Queen’ and is about the same height as me. I don’t know what the other is. It was struggling so I moved some and it has turned into a huge monster in its new position…it might just engulf everything around it!

    Ann Mackay

    August 2, 2021 at 5:59 AM

    • After Europeans took native American sunflowers back to Europe, they figured out how to breed them into giants of the type John Gerard and you described. Are people where you are generally familiar with Maximilian sunflowers as well?

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 2, 2021 at 7:16 AM

      • I don’t think many would know of Maximilian sunflowers. You can buy the seeds, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the plants for sale. I have never seen one except in a picture, so I don’t think I’d recognise it.

        Ann Mackay

        August 2, 2021 at 6:42 PM

  2. Many of the sunflower species we see here are also quite tall. Oddly I have been seeing other flowers much taller this year. Even the milkweeds in our front yard have shot up with several much taller than I am, which is unusual. Joe Pye Weed seems to be growing taller this year as well. I can think of a few less than noble plants that are wreaking havoc on environments but most are indeed noble, especially the natives.

    Steve Gingold

    August 2, 2021 at 9:42 AM

    • Do you have any idea why the milkweeds and other plants you mentioned are growing taller than usual this year? As for noble plants, I never met a Helianthus species that wasn’t, whether larger or smaller.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 2, 2021 at 10:15 AM

  3. I enjoy all species of sunflowers and their cheerful faces always make me smile. We are also seeing copious numbers of them this year, which will be great for the birds and other fanciers of sunflower seeds.


    August 2, 2021 at 7:43 PM

    • I wonder if the many sunflowers you’re also seeing indicate that this is a good year for the species over a broader area than we normally consider capable of responding in a similar way.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 2, 2021 at 8:04 PM

      • That’s an interesting question, Steve. I attribute the flowers’ abundance to a wet spring, but there might be other, geographically and climatically relevant factors at play that affect Texas as well.


        August 2, 2021 at 8:17 PM

  4. These sunflowers are beautiful. They remind me of a Friday about 12 years ago when I was driving around with my oldest sister in Minnesota. Deb pulled off the side of a country road to pick some wild sunflowers. Thanks for your pictures and thus this memory.

    Life with Lois

    August 5, 2021 at 10:34 PM

    • Sorry for the late reply: I just found WordPress had put your comment in the spam folder. I’m happy to have revived that pleasant memory of your sunflowery day in Minnesota a dozen years ago. As a nature photographer, I can never get enough sunflowers.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 7, 2021 at 8:42 AM

  5. […] a recent post I showed my first Maximilian sunflower for 2021. On that same day, July 31, near a pond off […]

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