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If August had an official color, it would have to be yellow. It seems that everywhere we look right now, yellow flowers predominate.

The yellow flowers of curlycup gumweed and trefoil grace the shoulders of many gravel and blacktop roads across the state.

Goldenrods are in bloom on our prairies and elsewhere. Road ditches and other low areas are awash with the yellow flowers of sow thistles.

And, of course, the sunflower fields are in bloom, although they are not as widespread as in the past.

Sunflowers are members of the Aster Family (Asteraceae) and belong to the genus Helianthus which comes from the Greek translation of “Helio” (sun) and “anthus” (flower). The common name is likely a reference to the huge yellow blooms which can remind us of the sun. Sunflowers do not track the sun, however — just watch a sunflower field for a day.

You may not know that what we generally think of as a flower in the aster family is actually a flower cluster, or "inflorescence," and sunflowers are a good example. The flowers in the center of the head are called disk flowers while the flowers on the periphery of the head produce petal-like structures and are called ray flowers. Dandelions, on the other hand, produce all ray flowers.

Sunflowers in North Dakota
It might surprise you, but more than half a dozen species of sunflowers can be found in North Dakota. However, only a few species comprise most of what we see:

1. Common Sunflower
Most of the weedy sunflowers along road rights-of-way, field margins, old badger dens, and other disturbed areas are the common sunflower (Helianthus annuus). The common sunflower is native to our region, and the domesticated version of this species is what stands tall and proud in the sunflower fields across the state.

2. Stiff Sunflower
Perhaps the most widely observed sunflower on upland prairie across the state is stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus). This perennial sunflower grows 1-3 feet tall. It has opposite leaves that are ovate, rough, stiff, and typically point upwards. It generally is observed growing in patches due to the production of spreading rhizomes.

3. Maximilian Sunflower
Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) is also quite common. It grows lower on the landscape (e.g., wet meadows). Like stiff sunflower, it is a rhizomatous perennial, but the leaves are distinctively different. Unlike the coarse and rough leaves of stiff sunflower, those of Maximilian sunflower are not rough at all, and are folded and curved downward.

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Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of "Natural North Dakota"and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005, Chuck has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for the Lake Metigoshe Mirror, and his “The Naturalist” columns appear in several other weekly North Dakota newspapers.
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