Flaming orange flowers always catch my eye and the old-fashioned Mexican sunflower is still one of the best. There may be a revival happening with this plant that I have failed to notice.
I belong to some Facebook groups dedicated to butterflies and pollinators and it appears the Mexican sunflowers are bringing them all across the country. It did my heart good to see so many people growing this flower that was chosen as an All-America Selections winner in 2000, 19 years ago.
The Mexican Sunflower is known botanically as Tithonia rotundifolia and is indeed from Mexico and South America. Fiesta del Sol is a truly compact version that did very well in our trials with Mississippi State University. We had it planted with the Mexican bush sage, Salvia leucantha and the large African marigolds which are really from Mexico too.
So, after I started watching the reports and photos with butterflies, I decided to scope out plants and see how the pollinators of Georgia liked them. It seems just about almost every species of butterfly loves this flower as do bees and hummingbirds. If you are like me and are into pollinators, too, then we all need to put this flower in our habitats.
I like the combinations I am seeing as well. There were partnerships with the icy blue Evolvulus flowers and others with the native mistflower, Conoclinium coelestinum which was is also a butterfly magnet. I promise if you have success with the old-fashioned tall zinnia you will find success with the Tithonia.
It seems they are not as prevalent at the garden center as they use to be but seeds are always there, which means we can sow them much like a zinnia. Do plan on give your finished transplants plenty of room. Crowded conditions with poor air circulation usually-leads to unhappiness, much like it does with every other plant.
As mentioned, Fiesta del Sol will reach 2- to 3-feet tall. The torch is a 6-foot plus monster, that I still love. It’s fun shooting photos of butterflies looking up to flowers on plants taller than you. Sundance is a beautiful variety in name and color and is touted as reaching 4-feet tall. Let me admit I have not grown it. Most gardeners while they say they love it will also say it, too, gets much taller. Goldfinger is reported as compact as is a stunning mix called Arcadian Blend.
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Prepare beds by incorporating 3- to 4-inches of organic matter and 2 pounds of a slow-release 12-6-6 fertilizer per 100 square feet of bed space. Direct-seed, or set out transplants that have little to no color showing.
Thin seedlings to the correct spacing as recommended for your variety for the vigorous growth that is about to occur. The largest ones I have been watching are 3- to 4-feet wide so you may want a little wider spacing. Mulch when the seedlings are large enough or after setting out transplants. Side-dress the young plants in six to eight weeks with light applications of fertilizer.
The Mexican sunflower looks like the quintessential cottage garden flower, especially when partnered with blue salvias and zinnias. The Fiesta del Sol variety would also excel artistically as the thriller plant in designer mixed containers.
Most reading this column will have to wait to plant until next spring but warmer regions can start now. Whether you choose a named variety or go generic you can expect Monarchs, Swallowtails, Sulphurs and even the intricate Hairstreaks. You will also have hummingbirds that will make the garden a spectacle of nature. You will ask yourself how you could have ever forgotten this beloved flower.