Those Serendipitous Sunflowers

Show all the blooms, but show them slant (with apologies to Emily Dickinson)

For weeks I chased Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani) like a birder in hot pursuit of a rare species. Initially, I thought I’d found them at the Attwater refuge, but after both a friend and a member of the refuge staff persuaded me that my glorious find was swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius), I knew I’d have to look farther.

One morning, in the process of just roaming around, I passed a patch of vibrant yellow leaning against a pasture fence.  Even at 60 mph, it seemed unusually substantial, so a mile down the road I turned around in a driveway and hustled back to the fence. My instincts had been right. The flowers were Maximilians: beginning to fade, but still glowing as they slanted into the rising light.

I’d always assumed Maximilians were a central-Texas-and-north flower, but I’d missed seeing that the USDA map suggested otherwise. I began looking more closely, and on a small patch of land less than a quarter mile from the Galveston/Brazoria county line, I found them again. Well on their way to forming seed, their little patch of land had escaped both public and private mowers.

As the day progressed, haze from burning fields obscured the morning’s pure blue skies, but added a certain delicacy to some of the images. Here are a few of my favorites from that unexpected encounter.

If one bloom is good, more can be better
A few clouds provide a pleasing background
When it comes to growth, horizontal does as well as vertical
Hazy skies and scattered grasses lend a delicate air
This feels as old-fashioned as my grandmother’s kitchen
A photo-bombing leaf? It’s odd, but I like it
An attractive combination of seed head and bloom
The plant’s graceful leaves deserve equal time
A late season treat for pollinators


Comments always are welcome.

52 thoughts on “Those Serendipitous Sunflowers

  1. If at first you don’t succeed, look, look again: success at last! Now you have a personal and literal slant on this great autumn species.

    I like the sound and rhythm of “I passed a patch of vibrant yellow leaning against a pasture fence.”

    1. What’s most amusing about my search is that it could have ended a few years ago. I did a little browsing in my archives and found Maximilian photos from Armand Bayou, Kansas, and even this same spot of land — albeit two years ago. As the old song has it, I once was blind, but now I see.

      When I re-read the sentence you quoted, an alternative phrasing came to mind: “I passed a patch of vibrant yellow athwart a pasture fence.” I’m not sure the flowers were exactly athwart, but I do like the word.

  2. “…as old-fashioned as my grandmother’s kitchen” really brings a smile to my face this morning. As the holidays approach in this year of isolation, it’s memories of holidays past that must sustain us.

    I keep a cookie jar on my kitchen table that was ALWAYS filled with my grandmother’s sugar cookies and occupied an eternal assignment on the side counter of my grandmother’s kitchen when I was a boy. I still keep it filled with cookies, although a weak substitute for her grand rewards.

    Late season sunflowers are a treat nearly as sweet as grandmother’s sugar cookies.

    1. Lucky you, to still have that cookie jar. My own grandmother’s jar was clear glass with a glass lid; she always told us that being able to see the cookie level in the jar was her way of knowing if we were taking too many cookies at a time. Sometimes we did finish off the homemade ones; then, we got Archway frosted oatmeal or almond windmills.

      Memories, cookies, and sunflowers — there’s enough sweetness there to compensate for a good bit.

    1. We have had gorgeous skies. Recently, I saw about two hundred snow geese circling above me. The contrast between the white birds and the blue sky was even more dramatic than these sunflowers.

  3. Sunflowers against a blue, blue sky. Does it get any better than that! And don’t kid yourself: plant people are *at least* as nuts as birders.

    1. Now that I think about it, I have indulged in a tiny bit of craziness from time to time when it comes to plants. I suppose the best thing about plant — or bird! — craziness is that it’s relatively harmless. Relatively!

    1. For me, it’s that unexpectedness that adds so much pleasure to roaming around in nature. Whether it’s an out-of-season flower, one that’s far outside its range, or one that’s arrived with an odd shape or color, there’s always a new delight. And, yes: yellow against blue is as compelling as your red house against the woods.

  4. It is quite wonderful that you found this plant after some dogged searching. As a birder who searched for thee long days for the Golden-cheeked Warbler on the Edwards Plateau and finally found it, I understand the elation. I just had successful cataract surgery on my second eye and while distance and clarity has improved remarkably I can’t see worth a damn. Unable to get an appointment with my optometrist until 29 December, I just bought a pair of drug store reading glasses, and that is helping, but I find it difficult to wear them for long periods. I am catching up on scores of emails and trying to hit some of my favourite blogs. By tomorrow, hopefully, I will be caught up.

    1. I’m so glad you’re past that second surgery, David. I do hope that things improve for you even before your appointment. I had a few issues after similar surgery, but all is well now; I suspect it will be the same for you.

      I knew I’d heard of the Golden-cheeked Warbler, and when I looked for it on the Cornell site, I understood why. Rare and endangered, indeed! It’s wonderful that you had the opportunity to see it. I read that they require juniper bark for nest building, and that they favor old growth oak and juniper woodlands — that’s the Edwards Plateau, for sure.

  5. Every single one of these makes my heart sing. I haven’t seen sunnies for a couple of months now and they are one of my favorites. That fabulous blue sky with the yellow blooms is just so striking. I could see these super large, hanging on a wonderful wall that you could just fall into and relive that perfect moment. I’m so glad you turned around — the results are spectacular. (And loved cozy as your grandmother’s kitchen!)

    1. I’m not sure why those two photos reminded me of Grandma. I think it might be that they have that faded, slightly washed out look of certain vintage postcards. Most holiday cards, like the ones on your blog, are more vibrant, but there are some — particularly the linen ones — that fade very nicely.

      These were taken a month ago, on October 18 — I can’t believe a month has passed. I suspect there are very few flowers left now, which makes me even more grateful that I found these when I did.

    1. The good news about sunflowers is that they favor disturbed sites, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see your sunflowers back again before truly cold weather persuades them to give it up for the year. We have a huge road and bridge project going on in my area, and I drive it every day. They scraped and dug and carted off the earth, and then poured concrete galore. The sunflowers they eliminated are back, happily blooming at the base of the huge concrete supports for the highway beams. I smile every time I see them.

  6. Oh, Linda, these are lovely! How fortunate you were to find them in such good condition. I like the changing backgrounds, too. The hazy ones almost look like they were taken at the beach — I must be thinking seaside again because I can almost picture lapping water if I look close enough!

    1. Sunflowers sometimes seem to be lighted from within, which makes them doubly bright and cheerful. I love the changing seasons, and the decline into seed and root, but it is nice to see these still shining in the fields. They seem to be a distillation of the joy that abides in nature.

    1. October’s the beginning of our blue-sky season, since that’s when northerly winds begin to push away the haze that results from summer’s humidity. A really good norther can give us several days in a row of glorious skies — if they come while some flowers still are blooming, that’s lagniappe!

  7. Quite showy, Linda. At first glance they reminded me of the common telegraph flower that is found all over America, including out backyard. Their name derived, I believe, from being found all along the early telegraph lines. (They like disturbed ground.) Looking again, I saw that yours were showier and more orange. –Curt

    1. Sunflowers are in the genus Helianthus. The ‘telegraph flower’ is a different genus: Hetereotheca. Your local version seems to be H. grandiflora.

      We also have a Hetereotheca species: H. subaxillaris. The common name for ours is camphor weed. What’s interesting is that the telegraph flower also has a camphor-like scent when its leaves are crushed. It’s a strange sort of family resemblance, but sometimes the connections aren’t as obvious as the appearance of the flower. You’re right that the genus is spread across the country, even though the species differ. I always get a kick out of looking at the BONAP maps, which can explain a lot with even a glance.

      1. My hat is off to you as the plant expert, Linda. I always have liked to know what I am seeing along the trail on my ‘walks on the wild side.’ Don’t remember if I ever told you the story about Orvis and flowers. Probably. He was the 70-year-year old that I almost didn’t let go on my first Trek because I thought he was too old. And was still backpacking with me 17 years later. Anyway, he quickly became my flower expert. So I readily accepted his description of a certain flower as a DYC and passed the info on to our fellow Trekkers. Later I asked him what the DYC stood for. His eyes twinkled and he said ‘damn yellow composite.’ –Curt

  8. Very nice photos of Maximillian sunflowers. This is one of my favorite plants and have grown them in my yard for more than 40 years. They always seem to reach for the sky and fall over as these do in your photos. One plant in my yard must have grown to more than 8-9 feet this year. Odd but that one never fell over and remained rather erect in all its glory. I wish the blooms lasted longer. I have a pic of mine on FB which I took with my phone since my camera is no longer focusing/ working up to snuff. It seems that my camera and computer each decided to malfunction. A new camera is a must but I am saving for that.

    1. Lucky you, to have them so close at hand. These were among the tallest I’ve seen: at least, some of them were. They were growing every which way, and some actually had gone to ground. I was amused to see some flower-bedecked stems flat on the ground and still going — some as much as six or eight feet long.

      One of my lenses was acting a little wonky recently, and that was a bit of a worry. It seems to have gotten over whatever the problem was, but believe me — I have my fingers crossed. Even if it only needs repair in the future rather than replacement, I’d hate to be without it.

    1. I’ve come to appreciate the importance of the background in photos, and this was a day when it was possible — and fun — to experiment with the different skies, instead of just dismissing the increasing haze as a ‘problem.’ The biggest issues was getting the grasses and flowers in the frame without the telephone poles and wires that were around — or the cars passing by on the highway.

  9. the first time I saw maximillian sunflowers (that I’m aware of) was in the yard of the house in Houston of the woman who led a small yoga group. they were so unusual I asked her what they were. obviously not field sunflowers.

    1. I love the way the blooms cluster and fill up the stalk. It’s been great fun to learn that a sunflower isn’t just a sunflower — there are so many species, even here in Texas. Down around Matagorda, I found the silver-leaf sunflower, which rivals this one for interest. They’re all gorgeous.

  10. The bright sky and the flowers glow together and I love the softer, ‘beachy’ sky too – very ‘feel-good’ images!

    1. It certainly made me feel good to find the flowers. The fact that they pleased you as well is a real plus, given your eye for color and pleasing color combinations.

  11. Your timing is uncanny. I was feeling down the past couple of weeks because I couldn’t visit a local spot to photograph acres of Swamp Sunflowers. Our wet season flooded the area and access is not possible.

    Your bright display of vibrant sunshineyness illuminated my soul. Thank you.

    It’s good to know I am not the only one who brakes for birds and blooms!

    1. I’m sorry you missed your sunflowers. When I went over to the Attwater preserve the last time, they were everywhere. I’ve never seen such a sight; ‘sunshineyness’ is exactly the right word. I don’t usually ask such questions, but did you see my post about that Attwater visit? It was such a splendid day; I’m eager to visit again now that the winter birds are arriving.

      I laughed at your comment about braking for birds and blooms. My peripheral vision is good, so I spot any number of things along the roadside, and those sudden stops have startled a few friends.

        1. Speaking of cars: have you come across those gizmos you put in the seat belt holder to turn off that annoying chime? I’d never use one on the road, but on something like an auto route in a refuge, where it’s start-and-stop constantly, it’s really a neat idea. I heard about them from Ron Dudley, Mia McPherson’s pal.

          1. Haven’t tried Ron’s gizmo, however, a birding friend many years ago taught me a trick. Turn the ignition key far enough to activate electronics but not start the vehicle, fasten and unfasten the seat belt quickly about 10-12 times, turn the key off. Might have to repeat the process, but it’s worked on four different vehicles for me. Much more comfortable on those refuge routes!

    1. Yes, we still have a little of that summer loveliness lingering, although things are beginning to change, even here. There’s a Sunflower Bakery and Cafe in Galveston that has this same yellow and blue color scheme. It’s a beautiful, cheerful place even in the depths of winter.

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