Going, Going… But Not Gone

Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani) mixed with native grasses

While such people may exist, I’ve yet to meet anyone who actively dislikes sunflowers. The willingness of common sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) to put down roots almost anywhere — construction sites, vacant lots, rural fencelines — can bring a smile to the face of even the most determined curmudgeon.

But there are many versions of the sunflower, including three of my favorites: swamp sunflower (H. augustifolius), silver-leaf sunflower (H. argophyllus), and Maximilian, named for Prince Maximilian Alexander Philipp of Wied-Neuwied, a German explorer and naturalist who traveled through the United States in 1832–34.

Swamp and silver-leaf sunflowers prefer conditions farther south; Maximilians appear in my area, but erratically, and sometimes in the most unexpected places. When I noticed a patch of them decorating a narrow strip of land in Brazoria County, I stopped for a visit. Despite being well past the peak of their flowering, they were a delightful discovery.

Clustered blooms and height help to make them noticeable. Commonly four to six feet tall, and even taller where conditions are right, Maximilians are tough and adaptable. Their flowers appear late in the season, often blooming in tandem with goldenrod.

Occasionally, skyward-reaching stalks provide an interesting view of their slender, alternate leaves.

Gravity often pulls tall, flower-laden stalks down to the ground, but shorter stalks will lean as well, even in the absence of wind.

Every sort of pollinator is attracted to them, especially butterflies. Here, a Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) pauses for a sip of nectar.

A special treat was finding a new example of a favorite autumn color combination in the field. Here, purple bindweed (Ipomoea cordatotriloba) clambers up a Maximilian stem, showing off its leaves in the process. 

Since I discovered this colony, winds associated with cold and warm fronts have been strong. Whether the sunflowers will be going strong when I next pass by is hard to say, but I suspect that they won’t be gone.

Comments always are welcome.


50 thoughts on “Going, Going… But Not Gone

  1. Against that blue sky, or as a partner to the frittilary or bindweed, their beauty only increases. Great shots, thanks for a last look at our full-on growing season.

    1. Even though these plants were probably fifty percent seedheads, they were impressive. When I spotted them on the other side of some goldenrod (probably S. altissima), I wasn’t completely sure what they were, but I knew they’d be worth stopping for. It was another of those terribly windy days, which was frustrating, but it’s been one of those years.

      One of the most interesting things I noticed was that the fritillaries were nectaring on the sunflowers, while the monarchs were staying with a plant that I think was Salvia azurea. I’m only sure of mealy blue sage and Texas sage, so more exploration’s required. I was happy to get some photos of the monarchs, though — for a week or so they were as thick as I’ve ever seen them.

  2. Good morning, Linda,
    I had never heard of Prince Maximilian Alexander Philipp of Wied-Neuwied before. I do know Wied and Neuwied, however, and I’m always surprised how small those principalities or counties in my native country were at those times. To me it looks like these “kings” of their realms ruled over something like molehills!
    Have a wonderful day,

    1. I’ve always been impressed with the number of German naturalists who were roaming our state’s territory in the 1800s. Some of that’s related to German settlement of Texas, of course, but there was enough interest in this ‘new world’ to draw a lot of interest.

      I thought it was especially interesting that Prince Maximilian traveled to Brazil, although, when I was reading about his home turf, I laughed to find it described at a ‘statelet.’ I suppose that’s a not-so-dignified term for molehill.

  3. My impression is that most people don’t realize how many species of sunflower there are. I certainly didn’t know there’s more than one till I got interested in native plants almost 20 years ago. Till then, a sunflower was just a sunflower. It’s good that Maximilian sunflowers appear at least sporadically in your area. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that now and then you’ve pointed them out to people who either wouldn’t otherwise have paid attention to them or would have noticed them without knowing what they are.

    1. I tried an online translator, etc. but no dice, everything refers back to the butterfly, and surprisingly, the term “stinky” seems to come up – – does “vanillae” have a connection to vanilla?

      1. According to an online ancient Greek dictionary, ἀγραυλής (agraulis) means ‘in the fields’; notice the connection of the first part of agraulis to the first part of Latin-based words like agrarian and agriculture, and to native English acre.

        What do the two favorite flavors of ice cream have in common? Vanilla and chocolate both come from plants native to Mexico, a large part of which country is home to the gulf fritillary butterfly. I’m guessing this butterfly likes the flowers of the Mexican orchid that vanilla is extracted from—or at least somebody thought it likes them.

        1. I first thought the host plant for the Gulf fritillary might be the reason for the specific epithet, but I learned the passion vine is its sole host plant, so that eliminated that. Then I discovered that Vanilla is a genus name, that V. planifolia is an orchid, and that its bean provides our vanilla.

          The Missouri Botanical Garden site says that the “genus name comes from the Spanish name vainilla, meaning a small pod, with reference to the shape of the fruit.” That led me to wonder whether the markings on the ventral side of the Gulf fritillary’s wings might be the reason for the name. They could be seen as rather pod-like.

          I certainly was in the fields when I found the sunflowers and fritillaries, so agraulis is appropriate. You can see the slice of land where the sunflowers were (between FM2004 and Landrum Road) here. The square parcel just behind the fishing camp is the hayfield where I’ve found so many plants, including ladies’ tresses and four species of milkweed. I try and get back there at least every couple of weeks, just because things can change so quickly.

          1. I’d also checked the host plant for the gulf fritillary and found it to be the passion vine.

            That’s an interesting conjecture you’ve made about markings on the butterfly’s underside looking like little pods.

      2. It’s taken me all this time to remember another association. Fritillary comes from the Latin fritillus, or ‘dice box.’ The Online Etymology Dictionary suggests the markings on the butterfly’s wings may have reminded people of the markings on dice. So: no dice? Maybe not, at least in terms of the butterfly!

    2. I certainly didn’t know about the multitude of sunflower species. Of course, as you may remember, there was a time in my life when ‘pretty flower’ served as a fine description for everything in bloom: unless it wasn’t pretty. Then, I just ignored it.

      As a matter of fact, a fellow on his way down to the bait camp at the end of the road where I found these stopped to ask what I was photographing. He got a proper introduction to Maximilian sunflowers, which he’d never heard of, learned that monarch butterflies migrate, and seemed tickled that he could be the one to tell the guys gossiping down at the bait camp what ‘that woman’ was up to.

    1. Your dedication’s admirable — but don’t forget that old adage about all work and no play!

      Like you, I enjoyed the colors in the last two photos, but I couldn’t resist adding the third one, showing the leaves against the sky. You may not be old enough to remember what I saw in that photo, but those leaves certainly reminded me of the ice tongs hanging on my grandparents’ back porch. Even though they had an electric refrigerator, they had a real ice box, too, and used those tongs to transfer blocks of ice into it.

  4. Terrific album! And those shots with the butterfly and bindweed are so great! I predict a clever florist is going to cultivate a bed like that, with purple bindweed twining around the sunflower, that’s a cool shot. Really nice words, too – – Helianthus, Maximilian, frittilary.

    1. I’ve become increasingly aware of the number of purple/yellow/gold combinations that exist around here, and I really like them. Beyond that, I love vines: especially the ones that have fancy leaves and a willingness to show them off on anything that’s handy. (An aside: remember the No Trespassing sign down at the wildlife refuge that had been overgrown with vines? The fenceline’s clean now and the sign post is neat as the proverbial pin. It’s a fine use of our tax dollars, I’d say.)

      Here’s a confession. ‘Fritillary’ always makes me think of ‘frittata,’ and now I want some. But there’s no etymological relationship between the words, and the butterfly’s safe. A fritillary frittata doesn’t sound very appealing.

      1. I like frittatas, too, and maybe I’ll add little butter to the oil to fry it, but not butterflies.
        I’ve only seen white bindweed, never purple. I know it can be a real honest-to-heck pest, but the flower is kind of pretty.

    1. What’s slightly amusing is that I’m never sure whether the occasional twinge or ache I feel is due to my work or my photography, One thing’s certain: I don’t need a trainer to become more flexible. I could stand a little more cardio, but I’ve got that flexibility thing down cold.

  5. There are so many species of everything. I have yet to come across a flower which isn’t pretty. Perhaps that giant rotten meat smelling flower might come close but then it modestly only flowers for a day or so before it vanishes.
    I prefer a daisy of which there are so many species, my life would be too short to get even close to discovering them all.
    Another great post, Linda.

    1. Even when flowers aren’t exactly pretty, they can be interesting, or attractive, or compelling. That’s one reason I enjoy fall and winter. Getting to see the seed heads, and the structure of the plants without all that greenery and color, is delightful. It’s like seeing trees without their leaves. The trunk and branches that disappear behind the spring and summer growth can be appreciated in a different way.

      Daisies would keep you busy for a while, there’s no question about that. One of these days I’ll pull out one of my favorite daisies — it’s a little unusual because it doesn’t have any petals. It’s a stunner, though, and one of its common names is ‘perfume balls’ because it has such a lovely fragrance.

  6. What a splendid post and such magnificent photos! Yellow never fails to cheer you up. Thanks for the enlightening write up on the gorgeous sunflowers!

    1. Some of the photos aren’t quite the quality I’d like, but when flowers are fading and the wind is blowing — well, you just never know whether you’ll get another chance to record them. That’s part of the charm, of course. What can be repeated, perfectly, time after time, may be valuable or useful, but it’s not natural.

      Yellow is cheering, even on a gray day. Being able to find a bit of blue sky for these was especially nice, since we’ve been having a bit too much gray for my taste. I’m glad you enjoyed seeing them, too.

    1. At one point, I found myself thinking of them as a sort of consolation prize for not having those larches. Between the goldenrod and the sunflowers, we have plenty of autumn yellow. Orange and red are a little harder to find, but they’re out there too. And they’re talking about snow in the Panhandle this weekend — we won’t have white to go with our yellow, but parts of the state might.

    1. I’ve seen Jerusalem artichoke exactly once, in a garden in the hill country. When I read you comment, I went to the USDA and BONAP maps to see which counties the plant might be native in, and I had to laugh. In Texas, the USDA shows it in one county, and BONAP in four. All are in the far northeastern corner of the state, near Oklahoma.

      I did take a look at some of the recipes, and I must say there were some good-looking ones. I wondered if the tubers could be found in grocery stores, and the answer’s ‘yes’ — although I’m sure fresh are best.

      I do love the fritillaries, partly because they seem less skittish. I’m glad you liked its photo.

  7. The Maximillian sunflower is one of my favorites and I got mine from what was the Darr prairie which was not saved due to politics and more money than what Nature Conservancy wanted to pay. “They” said they were not interested in 40 acres of pristine acres- that had never been plowed. It was incredibly diverse with an untold number of plants- some of the rare. Anyway I have small stand of them plus Engelmann’s daisy and Texas blue grass and some switch grass that I managed to get before the prairie was covered in concrete. I feel sad and a bit sick every time I pass the area.

    1. I couldn’t find anything online about the Darr prairie, apart from some oblique references to land that might have been ‘it’ in newspaper clippings. It’s a shame it was lost, but I think there’s more attention being paid to smaller parcels of land today, and there might be more money available, since the base of people supporting such purchases is larger.

      In any event, it’s good that you have some plants with a connection to that land. The combination of the sunflowers with the other plants you mentioned sounds lovely. I like the Engelmann daisy, and of course the native grasses always add a lovely note. I hate that I’ve missed so much of the fall this year, but so much rain has meant that sunny days have had to be devoted to work rather than play. Perhaps once our next front rolls through on Monday, we’ll have some decent weather at last — I’ll take the cold, if the sun shines.

      1. It was unofficially called the Darr prairie. I think Darr Equipment Company must have owned the land. It was a beautiful site and I still have twinges of disbelief and sadness when I drive past. I’m not sure if any of the folks that were involved knew about the environmental value.

  8. Yellow is a very eye-catching color, more so than red, supposedly. And that nice sunflower yellow against the blue of the sky is a lovely color combination.

    1. When it comes to yellow and blue, the whole certainly is greater than the sum of the parts: at least, in my opinion. I’ve always liked a mixed bouquet; in this case, the blue sky serves nicely as part of the bouquet. In winter, when the plants go to see, it combines just as nicely with the ivories, beiges, and browns.

  9. Those last 2 shots are definitely stunning and the butterfly superbly captured.

    I never realised there were so many sunflower varieties. To me, a sunflower is a sunflower :)

    I think I’ve only seen sunflowers once, and as I’m having a Brain Fog night, can’t for the life of me remember where. Possibly a marvellous community garden down near St Kilda Pier and Beach close to where I lived, where I took so many sand/sea/boat shots some years ago. I’ll never forget that extraordinary garden with model ships, wind chimes, prayer flags, handbasin and old baths decorating the veggie plots.

    1. I thought those last two photos were especially nice. I was tempted to post each of them separately, but decided I’d rather show several views of the flowers for those who weren’t familiar with them.

      It never occurred to me that sunflowers wouldn’t be part of your landscape, but I see that the ones grown there aren’t native. I do come across various cultivars in gardens from time to time, and some of them are dramatically different: especially in height and color. The first time I saw red sunflowers, I had a hard time grasping what I was looking at. They’re attractive, but I still like the natives best.

      It sounds like the community garden near St. Kilda was especially attractive. Combining garden art with plants takes a certain knack to make it all fit, but it sounds as though they did a good job of it.

      1. I forgot to mention, Linda…..I’ve just remembered this morning…..

        The most amazing sight of sunflowers I’ve ever seen was when my travel companions and I went over the Greek/Turkish border in 1976. The fields were filled with enormous sunflowers, stretched out as far as the eye could see. The farmers still working with old wooden carts and donkeys (or maybe horses?). It was like stepping back a hundred years. Wish I had a photo of it, but being in a moving bus, I probably didn’t think I could capture the sight with a little instamatic camera back in those days.

  10. Yes yes yes, sunflowers are bloomin’ wonderful! I’ve often grown them, including the ‘fartichokes’ which tolerate poor soil and produce food for the belly and the soul.
    The two biggest memories are though, from Europe, when in the 70’s, I saw my first large field of them in sunny Spain, and in Holland, when one plant was so tall it reached to the window above the ground floor. I’d call it first floor but think sometimes it gets called otherwise? Nonetheless, it was like a jack and the beanstalk growth.
    Last summer I planted some in the little plot in my rented house garden, and they did survive after I left, enough to seed once more……and when conditions allow, a new life.

    1. Sunflowers surely must be one of the easiest flowers to grow. When I still was feeding birds, the occasional sunflower seed would land in a flower pot and take root, or fall over the edge of the balcony and set up shop behind the intentional landscaping — at least, until the yard crew took them out.

      Nothing’s so beautiful as a whole field of sunflowers. The first time I saw such a thing was in Kansas, where they’re widely cultivated. Kansas also happens to be known as the sunflower state, although it’s the native sunflower that’s their state flower. I always associate Holland with tulips, so it’s delightful to think of sunflowers growing there, too.

      I’d never thought much of Spain in terms of wildflowers, until I recently came across an article fussing about Spanish bluebells turning invasive in other countries. When I did a search just now for Spanish wildflowers, I was greatly amused to find this among the listings. It looks like my bindweed has a relative in the old country.

  11. Great shots! I especially like the 2nd one. Although I love all kinds sunflowers, I’ve given up in trying to ID many of the yellow daisy-like flowers. At least sunflowers are larger and that at least helps a little.

    1. I like the second one, too. Because the flowers were so far gone, there weren’t any of the thick masses of blooms up and down the stems that characterize the plant. But I thought that section was a nice representation — I’m glad you like it.

      Sunflowers are easier to sort out than I imagined at first, because of variations in height, leaf arrangement, and (sometimes) season. A few are pretty choosy about their location, too. Swamp sunflowers (as you’d imagine) like swales or ditches, while it seems the Maximilian likes drier, rockier conditions. Of course, the common sunflower just roams around, setting up shop wherever it can find a patch of dirt, and I love it for that.

    1. I think the fritillary and the bindweed are the best of the photos: no question about that. But I wanted to give a somewhat larger view of the plants, too. I hope they’re around next year, so I can get some better photos of them in their full glory. So many of the fading plants were well above my head; they would have been fabulous if I’d gotten there a bit sooner.

  12. This is a treat, Linda, and the third photo – I love it! So graceful. The colors are so deliciously bright and clear in all of them, too. It’s much darker up here….

    1. Everyone likes butterflies and pretty flowers, but I really liked the structure of that third photo, and decided to include it even though it could have been a little crisper. I’m sad to say these pretty days have been few and far between. We’re on our third day of drizzle and fog and rain and gloom right now — I was so irritated yesterday that I went down to the refuge in pouring rain, just to see what I could see. What I saw was that our freeze and snow took care of these sunflowers, and the goldenrod that was mixed in with them. All gone!

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