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October 2009 cover image lesser prairie-chicken

Flora Fact: Here Comes The Sun

Superhardy Maximilian sunflowers keep their faces turned toward the sun

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

In a community garden at a San Antonio library, Joan Miller grows one of her favorite Texas natives for bright fall color — Maximilian sunflowers.

“I dug up about eight plants from our property in Bandera County and transplanted them here,” says Miller, who volunteers at the garden, supported by the Landa Gardens Conservancy. “I love them because they bloom late summer into fall and do well no matter what.”

Even complete neglect doesn’t offend Helianthus maximiliani, cousin to the common sunflower. With little more than full sun and occasional showers, this long-stemmed, unbranched perennial thrives along highways and across fields, standing anywhere from three to 10 feet high. Large colonies can form from a single plant.

sunflower

Up to 3 inches wide, the yellow-petaled faces of Maximilian sunflowers track the sun throughout the day. Livestock graze the species, and birds love the seeds. So did Native Americans, who once cultivated sunflowers for food, dye and fibers. The plant’s rootlets, which look like mini potatoes, taste similar to a Jerusalem artichoke, according to Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest.

As its common and botanical names imply, Maximilian sunflowers have regal connections. The species was christened after Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, a German naturalist who explored the American West in the 1830s.

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