September 3, 2015

Bees, hummingbirds and especially butterflies are big fans of tithonia, aka Mexican sunflower.
Jessica Walliser

Every summer, I’m amazed at the diversity of pollinators that utilize certain plants in my landscape. The tiny native bees love the minuscule flowers of dill and fennel, while the chunky bumblebees enjoy the bigger, bell-shaped blooms of my blueberry bushes and campanula. It’s cool to discover which plants are pollinated by which insects, but there’s one particular plant that seems to attract the greatest diversity of large pollinators in my garden: tithonia.

A Pollinator’s Best Friend

Known as the Mexican sunflower, Tithonia rotundifolia is hands down the most “active” plant I grow in my garden. I grow a cultivar called Torch, and its 3-inch-wide, orange-red flowers are pollinator magnets. The butterflies in my garden far prefer this plant to the butterfly bush only a few feet away. This year alone, we’ve seen eastern black swallowtails, tiger swallowtails, monarchs, fritillaries, cabbage whites, pipevine swallowtails, spicebush swallowtails, red spotted purples, red admirals, painted ladies, question marks and skippers on our tithonia plants. And that’s just the butterflies! There’s an equal diversity of bee species that enjoy sourcing nectar from this plant. Oh, and then there are the hummingbirds—they regularly visit our tithonia, too!

Caring For Tithonia

Tithonia is native to Mexico and Central America. Here in Pennsylvania, it’s grown as a warm-season annual. I start the seeds indoors under grow lights in late March and plant the seedlings out into the garden in mid-May. It takes a few weeks for them to adjust, but once they take off, there’s no stopping them. Mature plants are 6 to 8 feet tall with wide, sturdy branches that bear flowers from early July until the first frost. Alternatively, you can sow the seeds directly into the garden after the danger of frost has passed, but it will delay their bloom time by a few weeks. As an added bonus, tithonia is unbothered by heat. In fact, it always seems to do best during hot, dry summers. This year has been a particularly glorious year for them: Each of my plants is currently sporting at least 50 blooms. I find that regular deadheading leads to increased flower production, but other than that, there’s nothing else required of the gardener. Despite their tall stature, the plants never need to be staked as long as they are located in full sun.

Planning For Next Year’s Garden

Every fall, I allow a few flowers to go to seed so I can replant them next year. I snip off the spent flowers soon after they turn brown and lay them on a paper towel on the kitchen counter to dry. A week or so later, I pull the flowers open and brush the seeds out with my fingers. I let the seeds dry on a plate for two weeks before packing them into envelopes and storing them in the fridge until the following spring.

One final bit of good news about tithonia: The plants remain untouched by the deer and rabbits that regularly peruse my garden, and they seem to be unbothered by any leaf-munching insect pests. Tithonia is a winner if there ever was one.

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