Perennial sunflowers brighten up the fall

Everyone knows that gold is king of fall colors in Colorado.

Nothing says autumn like a splash of sunny lemon, just like the hillsides covered with aspen leaves quaking in the breeze.

In my yard, the seasons are bookended by an explosion of yellow blooms.

The first plant to bloom in springtime is forsythia, with its cascades of delicate flowers. And in fall, the grand finale of the flower garden is a fountain of gold, provided by a special perennial that doesn’t last long but sure puts on a heck of a show before the snows arrive.

Maximilian sunflowers, also called New Mexico sunflowers, Michaelmas daisies or by their scientific name, Helianthus maximiliani, are the show stoppers of fall.

You’ll see them growing everywhere from the valley floor to Cedaredge, as they can tolerate a wide range of elevations and growing conditions. The ones planted around the Grand Valley are in full bloom right now and they seem to be a popular choice for landscaping around town.

It’s hard to miss these dramatic plants. They just look like tall stems bursting with yellow daisies, though each stem has several blooms strung along its length.

A flowering Maximilian sunflower plant can have thousands of flowers at once, all in various stages of bloom.

They’re named after Prince Alexander Philipp Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, a German explorer and naturalist, who explored the Great Plains in the 1830s and documented the plant growing there.

While this plant is native to the plains, it performs beautifully in western Colorado and actually doesn’t mind growing on the dry side. Maximilian sunflowers also don’t mind our heavy clay soils, for the most part, and are pretty tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions.

I have noticed the ones I grow tend to keel over, and I suspect it’s because I water them more than they actually need and the soil has been amended considerably, making it softer and less sturdy to anchor the stems.

It seems the sunflowers growing in drier areas maintain their upright growing habit a bit more than the ones that are irrigated more often, and don’t have such vigorous growth to make them as top-heavy as mine.

The roots of this plant are sturdy rhizomes, kind of like a Jerusalem artichoke, and they spread out to propagate the plant year by year. Each year, the plant dies back after flowering and the frosts hit, but the following spring, new sprouts spring forth from the rhizomes that overwintered in the soil.

If you want to transplant some, the best time would likely be after the plant has died back but before the soil freezes, or first thing in the springtime.

If you decide to plant this gorgeous perennial in your yard, make sure to give it plenty of room — mine has grown to be between 8 and 10 feet tall, and they do tend to spread out a bit.

But I’m not going to complain with a show like this. Maximilian sunflowers are like the pot of gold at the end of the summer, the last hurrah before winter.


If you’re looking for perennials to add to your yard or perhaps a few trees or shrubs, the Colorado State University Extension Tri-River Area’s 20th annual Plant Sale is next week.

The plant sale starts at 9 a.m. on Oct. 14, and the tree auction begins at 10 a.m.

Local nurseries donate plants to the sale and proceeds benefit the Master Gardener program and improvements to the demonstration garden.

The sale is at the CSU Extension office at the Mesa County Fairgrounds, 2775 U.S. Highway 50. Call 244-1834 for information.

Erin McIntyre is an advanced master gardener and journalist. Email her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) with story ideas or feedback.


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