Last year I grew Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifolia) for the first time, and I must say, I highly recommend this annual. Although I should also say, I did not grow this plant intentionally. In fact, I have never been interested in growing Mexican sunflowers before because of their signature orange flowers. I don’t mind a strip of orange here and there in marigolds or zinnias, but broad strokes of bright orange seemed too garish.
My Mexican sunflowers appeared in my garden unintentionally in a bed of wildflowers. Because of the pandemic, I had more time, so I developed a new garden bed. My intent was to plant native shrubs, but it would take a while for them to grow and mature. I was wondering what to do with the space when I realized that this blank canvas could be used for a carpet of flowering annuals. Over the years, I have collected or been given wildflower seed packets. You know the ones--generic wildflower seeds given at fairs to support the pollinators. I had so many that most were expired but since it was the pandemic and I had time, I mixed up the seeds and sowed them in the new garden bed in May.
As the summer passed, a variety of wildflowers, about 2 feet tall, emerged -- familiar favorites such as zinnias, cosmos, and bachelor’s buttons. In a few spots, there were plants new to me with thick central stalks and large leaves, very similar to sunflowers. I thought they might be sunflowers, but it wasn’t until September when they bloomed bright orange that I realized what they were.
Clearly the bees and butterflies loved the flowers, which were 3 inches wide with yellow centers. These flowers could have been cut for a vase, but I left them for the pollinators. By the middle of September, there were many orange flowers. I came to realize that at this time, the sun is at an angle and the light is softer, so the orange is quite nice. It is not garish at all and is part of the whole pumpkin fall theme.
My plants were 4 feet tall, but I saw Mexican sunflowers at a local public garden at 7 to 8 feet tall, covered in bees and butterflies.
I quickly realized that once you grow Mexican sunflower you have Mexican sunflower. It is an easy plant to grow from seed and to collect the seed. After the flower heads develop the seed, the heads turn brown and bend down. It is obvious when to cut and save the seed head. Last fall, I cut the seed heads and saved them in a paper bag. During the winter, I separated the actual seed, packaged them, and gave them to friends.
These plants are not fussy. They need full sun, tolerate poor but well-drained soil, should not be fertilized, and are deer resistant. They may need to be staked but there are shorter cultivars on the market. Fiesta del Sol, an All-America Selection (AAS) flower winner in 2000, is the first dwarf at 3 feet tall, making it perfect for containers. Goldfinger is 3 feet tall with orange and gold flowers. Torch is a 1951 AAS flower award winner and Yellow Torch has apricot yellow orange flowers. Both can grow to 4 to 6 feet tall. All the plants bloom from September until frost here in the mid-Atlantic. Try growing Mexican sunflower, you will be pleasantly surprised with the orange, fall flowers.
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