Maximilian Sunflower – A Complete Grow And Care Guide


Maximilian Sunflower is a tall herbaceous perennial native to central North America[1]. Scientifically known as Helianthus maximiliani, it grows 4-10′ tall in full sun and well drained soil[2][3]. Blooming numerous 3-4″ daisy-like flowers in late summer, it’s nectar and pollen attracts large numbers of bees and butterflies, while it’s seeds attract birds[4].

Look, when it comes to sunflowers, this plant is a complete and utter showstopper. When planted in groups, the large number of flowers produced and their showiness will have any passer-by take notice. I feel this is quite possibly the prettiest of all sunflowers when in bloom.

I have tried to grow this in the past, with limited success though, as I placed them in locations that had too much shade. I originally planted them behind my Cup Plant, which took off quickly, robbing much of the sunlight I hoped would reach Maximilian Sunflower. Thus, none of my plants did very well. But – I doubled my efforts in the winter of 2022/2023 after witnessing the beauty of this plant in the wild.

I was hiking in some public land, which I frequently do, and I came across one of the most photogenic and beautiful sunflowers I had ever seen. Once I identified it as Maximillian Sunflower, I knew I had to have it in my yard. So, I collected a couple seed heads (2-3 our of hundreds) and germinated a number of plants. Of these, I planted around 9 in my yard (5 in a formal flower bed, 3-4 in my microprairie) and was treated to blooms in the same year they germinated, which was quite impressive.

These are fist-year plants. This photo was taken in late September. The plants are well over 7′ tall.

I’m taking a bit of risk here, as this species is known for being a bit aggressive. But I have some tricks up my sleeve to help keep it in check, while still getting to enjoy it’s beauty. So, I will update this article periodically with how I’m doing. But in this article I’ll share all I’ve learned

In this article:

Facts about Maximilian Sunflower

  • It’s natural habitat is the tall grass or mixed-grass prairies of central North America from Canada to Texas[3].
  • A single plant can be a show-stopper as they frequently put out 12-30 flowerheads, making it incredibly popular nationwide (for perennial sunflowers)
  • It’s botanical name was named for a Prussian Prince, Maximilian of Wied, who in 1934 collected it during a trip to across United States[3].
  • It’s a perennial! Many people think of sunflowers as being an annual only – but not this one! It will come back year after year, increasing it’s size.
  • Native Americans would eat the roots, make dye and thread from this plant[5][7].
  • Early settlers would plant this near their homes as they believed it repelled mosquitos[6].

Native Range

The primary native range of Maximilian Sunflower is the central plains from Saskatchewan-Manitoba to Texas. Some earlier authorities had it’s native range extending into Wisonsin and Illinois. But due to it’s beauty it has been used in landscaping, and thus birds have helped establish it in numerous states after eating seeds and then spreading them in their droppings.

Reference Table

Scientific NameHelianthus maximilian, Helianthus subtuberosus
Common Name(s)Maximilian Sunflower, Michaelmas Daisy, Narrow-leaf Sunflower
Native Range, USDA ZoneNorth America, USDA Hardiness zones 4-9
Bloom TimeLate summer
Bloom Duration, Color4 weeks, Yellow
Height3-12′
Spacing / Spread2-4′
Light RequirementsFull sun
Soil TypesSandy loam to clay
MoistureMedium moisture to dry
Fauna Associations / Larval HostsBees, butterflies, birds / hosts multiple species
References:[2][3][4]

Pros and Cons

Pros

Beauty

Maximillian Sunflower is one of the most beautiful of all sunflowers. The way it’s primary stalk is decorated with numerous 3-4″ blooms is quite stunning. Look, I grow many members of the Helianthus genus, and this one is special.

Wildlife

An incredibly important flower for wildlife, it will attract dozens of bees and butterflies for pollen and nectar. It’s seeds also feeds upwards of 50 species of birds[3]. And it is also used as forage for herbivories.

Spotted cucumber beetle on Maximilian Sunflower

Long bloom duration

Blooming for 4-6 weeks in late summer to early fall, the numerous flowers produced on Maximilian Sunflower can keep your garden looking wonderful much longer. These late blooms really help feed late season pollinators as well as being a natural bird feeder.

Extremely adaptable

When it comes to growing conditions, Maximilian has one key criteria – it needs sun. Other than that, it seems to do well in almost any soil texture of moisture condition as long as it doesn’t get ‘wet feet’. It is very likely that this plant can adapt to your yard.

Cons

Aggressive

This flower can be aggressive[8]. It produces hundreds of seeds each year, and although many are eaten by birds, some will always germinate. And they may show up in the next flowerbed, as a goldfinch that eats a seed may defecate it not long after eating it! You’ve got to pull unwanted seedlings in Spring if grown in formal flowerbeds.

Overbearing

The massive height of this plant and make it look out of place, or overshadow any other flowers you have in a flower bed or garden. I’ve seen specimens in the wild that were upwards of 12′ (no exaggeration). Maximilian Sunflower can grow huge if given enough sun, so just be aware of that fact.

What you are seeing a photo I took of a single specimen in a meadow. I estimate that it was at least 12′ tall. For reference, the surrounding plants (Goldenrod, Ironweed) are approximately 4-5′.

Identification and Characteristics

Maximilian Sunflower is typically grows 3-8′ tall, but can reach higher. I’ve personally seen isolated specimens that were 10-12′ tall. It all depends on conditions – if in total full sun with moist soil, it can reach towering heights. Less sun would mean a shorter plant.

Stalk

The stalk is most often unbranched, round, light green to red, and is covered in short white hairs. It is generally very strong/stout and can withstand windstorms[3].

In meadow or prairie settings, it will generally be an erect stalk without any branching[4]. I have seen it branch in my own garden though, most likely because sunlight was striking the lower stalk and energizing dormant buds. So, in an open mulched flower bed, or if the lower parts of the plant are exposed to sun you may get some additional stalks.

Leaf

The leaves are the key to identifying Maximilian Sunflower. Fully formed leaves are alternate along the stalk, lanceolate, acuminate approximately 0.75″-2″ wide by 6″-12″ long with pinnate venation, and have no stem (sessile). Margins will be smooth or very widely spaced teeth (slightly serrated)[3][7].

The long leaves will symmetrically fold upward along it’s center vein, but then droop downwards toward the ground. Thus it is relatively easy to spot these plants from a distance, as the leaves are fairly distinct.

Comparing sunflower leaves

There are two other species of sunflower that have long narrow leaves that can be mistaken for Maximilian Sunflower. Sawtooth Sunflower (H. grosseratus) have similar shape but will not have hairs on their leaves, and it’s margins are serrated. Tall Sunflower (H. giganteus) will have smooth, hairless leaves, and it will only produce blooms at the top of the stalk, not up and down it.

Flower

Numerous blooms will occur on short flowering stalks along the axils of upper leaves, where sunlight can strike the stalk[4]. The overall flowerhead arrangement is racemose. This makes a single specimen very showy during peak bloom, as it is a show unto itself, resembling a tall flowering sentry[3].

Each flower will be 2-4″ diameter with 20 to 40 petals (ray flowers), which surround numerous disc flowers in the center[2][3][7]. The backside of the flowerhead will have lanceolate acuminate bracts that are covered in tiny white hairs. The flowers bloom in succession starting at the top and working downwards over 4-6 weeks[4].

How to save seed

About 4 weeks after blooming seed heads will form. When they begin to turn brown they can be harvested by cutting them off with hand pruners and letting them dry in a cool, dry place for a couple weeks. Now, you may wish to cover the flowerheads with mesh seed-saving bags as soon as the blooms fade, as goldfinches and other songbirds love to eat the seed. I’ve used these with great success in being able to harvest seed that would otherwise be eaten by the birds.

Next, shake the heads in a plastic container to have the seed naturally fall out. Seed can be stored in an envelop in a cool dry location for at least a couple years.

Root

The root system of Maximilian Sunflower is fibrous with short thick rhizomes[3]. This can result in mature specimens being large clumps, 4-6′ diameter.

Grow and Care

Maximilian sunflower is an extremely easy plant to grow. The most important thing is that it receives full sun. But it will grow well in dry to moist conditions and nearly any type of soil texture. From clay loam to sandy loam, and even silt or rocky soils, it can grow tall and strong.

While overall this plant is very adaptable, there are some conditions that are harmful for the plant. First, it is not tolerant of salt, and will not do as well along roads that are salted in Winter.

Another risk is that if you have very fertile soil or it is overly moist, it will be prone to flopping over. Likewise it should never be fertilized – it does just fine in poor soil. Now, this can still happen in strong storms. However, if it receives sun from all directions it will grow straight and tall.

These are my plants in my front yard, after a strong summer storm. I ended up staking them to get them to be erect again.

Is Maximilian Sunflower aggressive?

Maximilian Sunflower is a huge plant, and it can form a massive clump similar to how Tall Sunflower or the Cup Plant behave. It can be grown in formal gardens, but you will need to manage it’s spread by pulling unwanted seedlings in Spring, and possibly pruning roots to control overall size each Spring.

Also, you can remove spent blossoms as soon as they wilt to help reduce self seeding (see more on deadheading here). But it is likely that some of the flowers will be too tall to reach without a ladder!

How to Grow Maximilian Sunflower from Seed

Maximilian Sunflower seeds can easily be grown from seed as long as they are either winter sown or experience a period of cold-moist stratification in the refrigerator of at least 30-60 days[4].

Maximilian Sunflower Seeds

To grow it from seed, I really recommend winter sowing as it is the easiest way to achieve the cold stratification requirements, and you will get the earliest ‘natural’ germination possible. I have a very detailed guide and video on Winter Sowing here.

But to grow it from seed, simply fill a suitable container with moist potting soil and plant the (stratified) seed 1/4-1/2″ deep (6-12 mm). If you are winter sowing, you can plant the seed a bit shallower if you like, as the seeds are well protected in miniature greenhouses.

Maximilian Sunflower seedlings just after germination.

Once daytime temperatures begin to warm up, the seeds will germinate. In my experience, Maximilian Sunflower germinates quite early in Spring in comparison to other species. When the seedlings get 2-3 sets of true leaves you can either thin them, transplant to their final location, or separate and pot-up the seedlings.

I’ll discuss this later in the article, but young seedlings need to be protected from rabbits and deer. So, use a cage or liquid fence to keep the critters away.

Direct sowing

Maximilian Sunflower can be direct sown in Fall or winter. Use a drill to plant at 1/4-1/2″ deep at a rate of 0.1 to 0.25 lb per acre[8].

Alternatively, if the ground is heavily disturbed, you can spread the seed and then simply drive over it with a light tractor or off-road vehicle. This will ensure good contact with the ground.

Note that all forms of direct sowing will have some losses to birds and rodents.

Propagating by division

Since it has thick fibrous roots, Maximilian Sunflower can be divided in Spring of Fall[3][4][9]. To do so, simply use a spade to chop chunks of root mass out of the main clump as soon as you notice it emerging in Spring. Then, replant the clumps where you would like new plants.

It is possible to divide the plant in Fall too, however Spring carries several advantages. First, since the plant is already emerging you know that there are no significant long-term frosts coming, meaning that there is no chance of a frost throwing the plant up, breaking the new root bonds on the soil. Second, you don’t have to worry about sudden deep freezes occurring before the roots are sufficiently attached to the soil, causing the plant to freeze solid and killing it.

Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases

Pollinators

By producing both nectar and pollen, as well as having so many blooms, Maximillian Sunflower will attract ridiculous numbers of pollinators. Everything form short and long-tongue bees, bumblebees, honeybees, beetles, wasps, flies, butterflies – this plant will bring all of them in[2][4][10].

Birds

Over 60 species of bird have been known to eat sunflower seeds, which includes the subject of this article, Maximilian Sunflower[3][11]. But comparative studies have found that some species of bird prefer seed from Maximilian Sunflower over other species[12].Below is a list of birds that have been documented as eating sunflower seed[3]:

  • Tufted Titmouse
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Carolina Chickadee
  • Brown, Red & White Breasted nuthatch
  • Crow
  • Blue Jays, scrub jays
  • Red-bellied, hairy, and downy woodpeckers
  • Horned lark
  • Meadowlarks
  • Yellow-headed blackbird
  • Brown-headed cowbird
  • Cardinals
  • Grosbeak (Rose-breasted, Black-headed, Blue)
  • Finches
  • Buntings
  • Goldfinch
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Rufous-sided towhee
  • Numerous sparrows
  • Wild Turkey
  • Grouse
  • Prairie Chicken
  • Quail (several species)
  • Partridge
  • Pheasants
  • Doves
  • Snipe

Beyond song and game birds, in the plains of North Dakota ducks and pheasants will use the foliage for nesting[13].

Pests

There are numerous insects that will feed destructively on Maximilian Sunflower. The damage inflicted is generally cosmetic only. Furthermore, any native insects that feed on this plant are simply fulfilling their greater role within the food web. But, in addition to the butterfly caterpillars noted in the previous section, here are some further examples of insects that will feed on this plant[3]:

  • The sunflower moth (Homosoma electellum)
  • Banded sunflower moth (Cochylis hospes)
  • Weevils
  • Sunflower bud moths (Suleima helianthana)
  • Carrot beetle (Bothynus gibbosus)

Rodents

The large tuberous roots can be eaten by various rodents. This has not happened to me, but a longtime reader shared her experience. She had several patches severely damaged by 13-lined squirrels. Thus it is likely that voles, chipmunks, or other burrowing rodents could cause a similar issue.

Deer and Rabbits

While many references list Maximilian Sunflower as being deer resistant[16], there are others that note that deer actually prefer foraging on it[3]. And my experience matches the latter, as you can see in the photo below for first hand evidence of deer damage.

maximilian sunflower deer damage

And I did come across some resources that plainly stated that it was preferred forage for deer, particularly with new growth or early in the season[5]. And other sources state that this preferred forage extends to antelope[3]. This matches my general experience with other species of flowers in that young or tender new growth is almost always at risk, while older, tougher foliage is less preferred.

This plant produced some branches and still flowered that year, so it worked out fine in the end, however be aware that deer do enjoy browsing the foliage. Also, young seedlings are susceptible to rabbit damage. So, to protect both young and mature plants, I strongly recommend you apply Liquid Fence.

Livestock

Maximilian Sunflower is a preferred forage for livestock. Cattle, sheep, and goats will all browse this plant. And it is reported that the foliage is energy dense with good nutritional value[3].

Disease

No serious diseases effect Maximilian Sunflower. But it is susceptible to various common leaf diseases such as rust, leaf spot, and downy mildew. The effects of these diseases are primarily cosmetic[8]. The only serious risk to this plant would be root rot, which would occur in overly moist situations[6].

Where you can buy Maximilian Sunflower

The straight native species of Maximilian Sunflower is not typically sold in nurseries, as it isn’t always considered a typical ‘garden friendly’ plant. But it can be purchased at specialty nurseries that deal in Native Plants. You can find native plant nurseries near you on our interactive map.

Varieties

While the straight native species isn’t always available, there have been several cultivars and selected varieties developed over the years[16].

  • ‘Aztec’, is a composite variety collected from 5 counties in Texas, and was made available in 1978 from the Knox City, Texas USDA[5]
  • ‘Prairie Gold’ has higher cold tolerance, so can survive into North Dakota.
  • ‘Dakota sunshine’ is cold tolerant and showy[14]
  • ‘Lemon Yellow’ has colorful blooms similar to a lemon

Where to buy seeds

We have ordered a variety of native flower seeds from Everwilde Farms, which you can order right from Amazon through our link on our RECOMMENDED PRODUCTS PAGE. (We may earn a small commission when you purchase through our links, at no cost to you. This helps support our website.)

Uses of Maximilian Sunflower

Garden Uses

Maximilian Sunflower is perfect for a wild setting – a meadow, micro-prairie, or perennial border would work perfectly fine. It can be used in a formal flowerbed too, but you may need to control the spread. But in a wild setting or as a hedge, this flower would be stunning and beneficial.

I have planted several in my backyard microprairie, as well as 5 in a formal flower bed in my front yard. The 5 plants in the front yard grew to heights of 6-8′ in their first year from seed, and were really healthy. As next year progresses (which will be 2024) I will update this section with observations about their growing and characteristics.

Companion Plants

As a sun loving plant, Maximilian Sunflower does well with other sun-loving tall plants. In the wild it is often found with tall grasses such as Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Switchgrass, and Indian grass. These grasses look good alongside and interspersed with other tall prairie plants and flowers.

Some flowers that grow well with Maximilian Sunflower would include the Compass Plant, Liatris, Purple Prairie Clover, Echinacea, and False Sunflower.

Erosion control

The large root system of this plant means it can help reduce erosion. Planted near ditches or washouts the rhizomes will spread, gaining a firm hold on soil[5].

Native American Uses

The thick fleshy root was eaten by Native Americans raw or cooked[7][15]. Other sources also report that parts of the plant were used as a dye, thread, and oil (in addition to food)[6].

Early settler uses

There was a belief among early settlers that the flowers would repel mosquitos, and thus would plant them near their homes[6]. Additionally blossoms were added to warm baths to help relieve symptoms of arthritis[5].

Final Thoughts

This is an absolutely beautiful flower that provides 4-6 weeks of showy yellow flowers in late Summer to early Fall. It attracts a huge variety of bee and butterfly species, is a host plant for caterpillars, and the seed provides food to a variety of birds. Oh – and it is extremely adaptable, being able to grow in almost any condition of soil texture and moisture, provided it is in full sun.

Maximilian Sunflower may just be the most stunning and gorgeous of all native sunflowers. While I am still new to the plant, I’m optimistic that I can keep it’s overall size in check through root pruning or barriers. But in my back wildflower area, I plant to just let it do it’s thing and spread. So, why not be adventurous and give it a try?

Find more native plants here

References:

[1] – Helianthus maximiliani, USDA NRCS. Accessed 22DEC2023

[2] – Ecoregional Revegetation Application, USDOT Federal Highway Administration. Accessed 21DEC2023.

[3] – Dietz, Donald R., Wasser, Clinton H., Dittberner, Phillip L., and Martin, Chester 0. 1992. “Maximilian Sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani): Section 7. 4. 3, US Army Corps of Engineers Wildlife Resources Management Manual,” Technical Report EL- 92-16, US Army Engineer Waterways Experiment Station, Vicksburg, Miss. Accessed 23DEC2023

[4] – Skinner, Mark, ‘Maximilian Sunflower Helianthus maximiliani Schrad‘. USDA NRCS Plant Guide. June 2004. Accessed 23DEC2023.

[5] – Linex R., Maximilian Sunflower – Reflecting Autumn Sunshine, Texas Natural Resources Conservation Service, June 2020. Accessed 26DEC2023. Archived version here.

[6] – Maximilian Sunflower, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Austin. Retrieved 26DEC2023, Archived version here.

[7] – Owensby, Clenton E. “Kansas prairie wildflowers.” Ames : Iowa State University Press, 1980. pp133

[8] – Wasser, Clinton H. Ecology and culture of selected species useful in revegetating disturbed lands in the West. Fish and Wildlife Service, US Department of the Interior, 1982.

[9] – Call, C. A., and D. W. Owens. “Establishment of Helianthus maximiliani (Asteraceae) in abandoned cropland in the Post Oak Savannah of Texas.” The Southwestern Naturalist (1986): 367-374.

[10] – Neck, Raymond W. “Foodplant ecology of the butterfly Chlosyne lacinia (Geyer)(Nymphalidae). I. Larval foodplants.” Lepidopterists Soc J (1973). Accessed 23DEC2023

[11] – Browning, Nancy G., Arthur D. Dayton, and Robert J. Robel. “Comparative preferences of field sparrows and cardinals among four propagated seeds.” The Journal of Wildlife Management 45.2 (1981): 528-533.

[12] – Dillard, Jim. “Sunflowers for wildlife in the cross-timbers.” Texas Parks and Wildlife Department,+ Austin, Texas. Website: http://www. tpwd. state. tx. us/wildlife_pubs (1999).

[13] – Fisk, Keith J. An evaluation of duck and ring-necked pheasant nest survival and nest density in relation to patch size and landscape variables in eastern South Dakota. South Dakota State University, 2010.

[14] – Chicago Botanic Garden. Accessed 26DEC2023

[15] – Helianthus Maximiliani, North American Ethnobotany Database. Accessed 24DEC2023.

[16] – Knopf, Jim, The xeriscape flower gardener : a waterwise guide for the Rocky Mountain region, Boulder : Johnson Books, 1991, pp184

Joe Foster

Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over 10 years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you! You may have seen some of my videos I create on our YouTube channel, GrowitBuildit (more than 10 million views!). You can find my channel here: https://youtube.com/@growitbuildit Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!

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