Updated: Jul 7, 2021
By Debbie Roland and Emmy Ulmschneider, Master Gardeners
Maximiian’s Sunflower, Helianthus maximiliani, is a showy plant, towering above other vegetation when blooming in mid-fall. It likes full sun and dry to medium conditions. It has distinctive folding leaves without as many teeth on the edges like other species of sunflowers.
This sunflower is a branching perennial reaching 2’ to 8’ in height. Because of its height, it can be used as a hedge or screen. The tall stems and leaves, which can reach 12” long on large plants, are covered in rough hairs.
Unlike its cousin, the annual sunflower which spreads only through seeds, Maximilian sunflower also spreads through rhizomes and may spread vigorously. So plan on a larger area to grow them in. Old stems can be removed at the end of the season and plants can be thinned every three years to maintain their spread.
Indigenous peoples used this plant for food, oil, dye and fiber. Although we tend to think of the seeds as the only edible part, the rootlets could be cooked and enjoyed like the sun choke from another sunflower, the Jerusalem artichoke. And you too can enjoy the highly nutritious seeds for snacks or a special treat.
This plant is worth planting in an urban perennial garden, wildflower meadow or pollinator garden since it attracts bees, butterflies and moths. Sunflowers in general are pollinator superstars: they are tall and easily visible, their large discs make an easy landing pad and they provide abundant sources of nectar and pollen. And, if pollinated, the abundant sunflower seeds will feed birds and other urban wildlife all winter long. The plant itself is a desirable range plant for livestock.
Sunflowers originated in North America and were brought to Spain in 1510. From there they spread widely and by 1835 the first commercial sunflower plantation was cultivated in the Ukraine. Many of the sunflower cultivars we grow in our gardens today originated in Russia. Maxiilian’s Sunflower though has another European connection. The genus name comes from the species name and honors German Prince Maximilian Alexander Philip von Wied-Neuwied. In 1832-1834 Prince Maximilian explored parts of the American West and collected plants, including the one that bears his name.
If you want a plant that can give you a nutritious snack, engage your mind and delight your eye, then this is the plant for you.