I love sunflowers. But the best thing about sunflowers is that they aren’t just annuals. In fact many members of the genus Helianthus are perennial natives to the Great Plains and thereabouts. One favorite of mine from this throng of prairie stars is Helianthus maximiliani or the Maximilian sunflower.
Maximilian sunflower owes its name to German Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied who traversed the American West in the 1830s. No doubt the German prince-explorer, or his botanist-in-tow, found this stout perennial growing throughout the Upper Midwest. The species’ range covers much of the central and eastern United States and thrives in a variety of conditions from dry prairies to mesic uplands and wet lowlands. Its durability is a point of paramount significance. Rhizomatous as well, the plants are long-lived and will happily form small colonies warranting envy from all your gardening friends.
In my garden Maximilian sunflower takes advantage of a porous, evenly moist soil on the east side of the house. In fact it grows only three feet from the hydrant, ensuring a steady supply of moisture. But it certainly doesn’t need this pampering and were I to reinstall it, I’d recommend against it. It’s plush lifestyle leads to exuberance nearly cumbersome to its situation. Helianthus maximiliani can easily attain 10′ in height and this year probably came darn close. In drier climes, or more in more strenuous settings, it might also come in at 6′. I imagine many gardeners are keen on staking it but I’ve been known to let it flop about (see photo above).
This hulking mammoth makes a handsome structural plant in the border throughout the summer often towering over much of the garden as it grows to blooming height. Then the fun starts. In early to mid-September a graceful bevy of gold begins to shower over the bed making the plant a fitting companion to other late blooming perennials like lespedeza, vernonia, and aster. The flowers offer a choice nectar banquet for migrating butterflies and other insects. Almost as fun are the green remnants of the flowers, actually leaf-like structures called phyllaries. The starry, fibrous structures precede the flowers as well, unassuming co-stars in this autumnal garden performance.
Maximilian sunflower is quite hardy, Zones 4-10. I only know of two cultivars available both of which were released for conservation use. ‘Aztec’ and ‘Prairie Gold’ are reportedly available from commercial seed sources, though I’ve never seen them offered ornamentally. Seed and nursery liners of the species, however, can be found from native plant nurseries.
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