August 2018 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode
Maximilian Sunflower – Helianthus maximiliani
Maximilian Sunflower is a very hardy perennial herb, and a staple flowering plant of the prairie that is one of the most reliably productive plants we can re-introduce to the landscape for wildlife and livestock forage. This plant also has a variety of traditional uses as medicine, food, oil, materials, etc. It can grow up to 8-10 feet tall in deep moist soils, although it is also happy to grow in very poor, shallow, and dry soils. This plant produces large quantities of nutritious forage and seeds, and will begin to bloom starting in August, depending on the amount of rainfall. When grown in cultivated and irrigated settings or in south TX, it may begin to bloom months earlier. Cultivars are commercially available.
Its growth habit is to spread through its roots in a mat of rhizomes and send out many tall stalks lined all the way up with many leaves and flowers. It prefers to grow in full sun with the structural support and shade of a matrix of other prairie plants; stalks growing on their own might topple over from the weight of their flowers. Once established, it will spring back quickly from being browsed or pruned.
This plant propagates well from both broadcast seed and live root transplants and is excellent for building soil and organic matter. Just one small root transplant will spread into a large mat in the following years, making it one of the cheapest and easiest forage species to grow an abundance of with little input or extra care. It may take over conventional gardens and become a “weed” but does well in polycultural and pollinator gardens as a support plant; used similarly to cultivated sunflower to provide summer shade and mulch to other more sensitive plants.
Maximilian Sunflower’s spreading habit, hardiness, adaptability to wet and dry extremes, and ready commercial availability all make it a perfect plant to use in restoration projects to improve biodiversity, pollinator forage in late summer and fall, soil building and stabilization, erosion control, and rainfall infiltration, etc.
Maximilian Sunflower is extremely resilient to drought and will produce quality forage for livestock with no water or extra care, even in such severely hot and dry conditions (like this year), although it is noticeably shorter, and its bloom time has been delayed.
Native biological diversity is a necessity for building the structural integrity and ecological foundations of any farming and ranching operation, as it gives us the flexibility and resilience to cope with climate extremes.
These hardy native plants are essential to creating ecological and hydrological stability in ranching operations and having healthy and abundant forage for livestock when crops and non-native plants are unable to produce during drought. It is important to utilize hardy, perennial forage and support plants and crops wherever we can, because they are adapted to the local conditions and can maintain a healthy and consistent canopy of vegetation to shade the soil from evaporation and replenish it with organic matter to further keep the soil protected and covered.
The physical and chemical conditions created by the constant presence of perennial plants allow the symbiotic biology of their roots with the soil microorganisms, especially fungi species, to thrive. These perennial plant and soil communities are a vital part of maintaining landscape-wide soil moisture, and the aquifer recharge that is derived from that.
When we help perennial systems to establish and mature, we exponentially increase the activities of the soil life and the physical structures of plants that work to create permeable and spongy soils which can infiltrate large volumes of rainwater. With perennial systems, our plant nutrition and soil tilth come from a healthy and mature soil food web, and not from the flush of nutrients released by the death of the soil life when we disturb it with machines or animals.