Photo courtesy Daniel X. O’Neil via Flickr
Perennial sunflower is a beautiful flower to add to your garden, but its uses go beyond beauty. Learn 8 reasons to grow it in your permaculture garden.
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Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) is a perennial plant, native to central North America. It grows in full sun in zones 3-9, and will not do well in the shade. The 4-inch blooms are a lovely addition to the edible landscape and make beautiful cut flowers for bouquets in August and September.
How I Met Maximilian Sunflower
My first experience with Maximilian sunflower was an intimate one. In 2008, Mr. TAF and I were planning our wedding, and we were committed to sourcing what we could for the event locally. For us, each component of the special day needed to have meaning, reduce waste, and reduce cost.
We found Karen and Ed of Wildey Flower Farm at the farmers’ market, and fell in love with their gorgeous bouquets and accompanying fun personalities. So we asked them to supply wildflower arrangements for our wedding flowers. They scratched their heads and said that wildflower requests weren’t typical for late September. After all, most things are finished blooming by that date!
Still, they invited us out to the farm, where we took a ride through the farm fields, pointing out the different things blooming. The thing is, most wildflowers are so common (common can seem weedy) that they don’t match most brides’ desire for something unique. Karen and Ed were surprised by our enthusiasm for the wildflowers, but they took on the challenge. In the end, we were thrilled with their artful combinations of goldenrod, thistle, asters, and more with Maximilian sunflowers taking center stage.
I didn’t realize how useful this plant was until after the wedding, when I started to learn more about permaculture. Through permaculture, we seek to design food-growing systems that also regenerate ecology. By using multifunctional plants, we can create a web of connectedness throughout the garden, which can reduce work as well as reduce the need to import materials. (Curious about permaculture? Read: What is Permaculture?).
Excited about the multifunctional aspects of my new friend Maximilian sunflower, I planted it on the edge of our community garden. While we got some blooms, it didn’t form a thick planting like I had hoped. I discovered the hard way that this plant really doesn’t like the shade.
Here’s a little bit about the growing habits of Maximilian sunflower.
Maximilian Sunflower Habitat
Where you grow these sunflowers will take some planning, since they can grow from 3-8 feet tall. Maximilian sunflowers naturally grow in sunny prairies, quite comfortably among grasses. It can also be found growing in disturbed areas, such as along roadsides. Just look for their yellow, daisy-like blooms in early fall. In a garden area, it will need divided about every three years.
Maximilian is a Goldilocks when it comes to soil. If the soil is too rich and moist, the plants will grow weak and spindly, flopping over. Likewise, if the soil is too compacted or dry, it will not thrive. While it can adapt to disturbed areas—even in areas following fire—the soil should be moist but not waterlogged, and well-drained.
If growing in optimal soil conditions, it is very well drought tolerant.
8 Reasons to Grow Maximilian Sunflower
Over the years, I’ve fallen in love with how useful this plant is! Here are some of the reasons why Maximilian sunflower might be the right plant for your landscape or garden.
#1: Maximilian Sunflower is Edible
For most of us food gardeners, edibility is a key requirement. Maximilian sunflowers are related to Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus), and both have similar edible properties. Try the young green shoots in early spring (raw or cooked) or dig up the edible tubers in the fall when it’s finished flowering. Though the tubers are said to be smaller than those of Jerusalem artichokes, it’s still a multi-purpose plant to have in your survival garden.
Native Americans used the plants for food, oil, dye, and thread, according to the UDSA Natural Resources Conservation Service. The seeds—harvested in late October and November—were eaten by Native Americans as a snack and sprinkled on salads and other foods.
Try saving the seeds to reproduce more plants, or use them to make sunflower oil (though they aren’t as efficient or productive as oil sunflower seeds).
Reportedly, pioneers planted them near their homes to repel mosquitoes.
Photo credit to USFWS Mountain-Prairie via Flickr
#2: Maximilian Sunflower is Deer Resistant
As with most plants, we can never say that one is deer proof, but in my experience deer aren’t interested in Maximilian sunflower. According to Toby Hemenway in Gaia’s Garden, this plant has the ability to create a formidable barrier, and can be planted in sunny spaces to deter deer from an area.
The only time the plants seem to be occasionally foraged by deer is after it is finished blooming when seed heads remain on the plant. Of course, this is the best time to harvest the seeds for yourself. Cutting off only the spent blooms leaves stiff spikey stems that they don’t seem to like. (The dead stalks can be cut back over the winter to make way for new shoots in spring.)
#3: Create a Hedgerow with Maximilian Sunflower
Hedgerows can be used as a windbreak or as a privacy screen. Maximilian sunflowers can create a thick boundary and can be a useful component in a hedgerow.
Keep in mind that this plant will die back with a frost, so if privacy is your goal, it is best used in a mixed species hedgerow with woody perennials that keep their leaves or shape throughout the winter months.
For more hedgerow ideas, see my post How to Plant a Hedgerow.
#4: Create your own Mulch and Compost
If Maximilian sunflower is grown in full sun and optimal soil conditions, it will create a thick patch over time. Chopping it back at the end of the season will give you an insane amount of biomass. Here are some ideas for mulching in the permaculture garden.
This biomass can be chopped and spread over gardens to protect soil over the winter, or it can be added to the compost bin to create your own rich soil amendment.
#5: Form a Barrier Against Grass and Restore Prairie
Maximilian sunflower is allelopathic, which means that its roots produce a chemical that hinders the growth of neighboring plants. This chemical seems to work particularly well against grasses.
The roots form a thick barrier that keeps grass from creeping into an area where you don’t want it. Toby Hemenway calls this type of plant a ‘fortress plant’. Since Maximilian sunflower will spread indefinitely, mow a strip around its perimeter or use a rhizome barrier around the bed to keep it in place.
Because Maximilian sunflower is so great at warding off grass, it grows naturally in grassy prairies, able to hold its own ground. It can be seeded into prairies for habitat restoration, and it can be used in pasture as forage. Although palatable for livestock, it isn’t particularly high in nutrients.
Comfrey is another good fortress plant, though it does not do as well in a prairie habitat.
Photo courtesy of Daniel X. O’Neil via Flickr
#6: Reduce Erosion and Water Pollution
Maximilian sunflower is often used in erosion control plantings. Its perennial root crown and rhizomatous root system form a dense underground cluster that holds soil in place and absorbs water and nutrients. For this reason, it is often grown on a slope, where it can soak up water and nutrients as they run downhill.
It will also grow well with grasses in a filterstrip—a buffer planting that protects a stream from sediment buildup and agricultural or roadway runoff.
#7: Foster Wildlife
The density of Maximilian sunflower patches, especially when combined in mixed-species hedgerows, will produce habitat and cover for birds and other small wildlife like rabbits (for better or for worse).
Pollinators such as butterflies, beetles, and all manner of bees are attracted to the pollen and nectar. In fact, Maximilian sunflowers are an important food source in the late fall when not much else is blooming. See also Fall Blooming Flowers for the Bees.
Butterfly caterpillars will feed on the foliage.
#8: Attract Beneficial Insects
We all would like more beneficial insects in our gardens, and a nearby patch of Maximilian sunflowers can bring them around. They will attract ladybugs, lacewings, syrphid flies, and parasitic wasps, who will patrol the area for a variety of aphids, caterpillars, and other plant-sucking garden pests.
For more information on attracting beneficial insects, see:
- 5 Reasons to Grow Yarrow
- 5 Weeds you Want in your Garden
- 6 Reasons to Grow Oregano
- 6 Reasons to Grow Thyme
- 7 Reasons to Grow Calendula
- The Cherry Tree Guild + Natural Pest Control
Planting Maximilian Sunflower
Maximilian sunflower seeds can be sown either in the fall, or in the spring after the last frost. (Get seeds here.)
To start seeds indoors, they will first need to be cold stratified, which means the seeds need a period of cold to germinate. Starting about 8-10 weeks before your spring frost date, put seeds in a ziplock bag with moistened seedstarting medium, and store in the refrigerator for 30 days. Check the seeds weekly, and if they begin to germinate, it’s time to plant them. Sow the stratified seeds (sprouted or not) indoors under lights. For details on seed starting, see my step-by-step guide.
Maximilian sunflowers are bright, cheery flowers for any landscape, but you can also put them to work. With their ability to provide food, mulch, compost, and barriers; reduce erosion and attract wildlife and beneficial insects; this plant will certainly reduce your workload and cost in the garden.
Need more ideas for building soil in the permaculture garden?
Click here to get your 19-page Guide to Organic Soil Amendments!
- 4 Berry-Producing Shrubs that Fertilize, Too!
- 7 Ways to Fertilize the Garden with Comfrey
- Does Comfrey Really Improve Soil?
Would you like to learn more about improving the biodiversity of your garden, reducing maintenance, and increasing yield?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
How will you use Maximilian sunflowers in your yard?