Gardeners may recognize this fact: plants that originate in climates south of the United States are the ones that stand up to hot summers. Tithonia rotundifolia or Mexican Sunflower loves the heat, is relatively drought tolerant and has a growing habit that complements other heat loving annuals.
Also known as Torch flower, Tithonia is a Central American native that grows 4-foot tall and 2-3’ wide. Sometimes used as a temporary screen or at the back of a large border, Tithonia is seldom offered in nurseries. It is however easy to grow from seed and is included in most seed catalogs.
I am surprised this beauty is not more widely planted in Stillwater for the 3” flowers are brilliant OSU orange and bloom amidst coarse, bright green foliage. An annual, it does need to be replanted each spring. One can sow the seed directly into the garden bed if you protect seedlings from hungry birds. Seeding pots on a window sill is another option; Tithonia’s fast growth makes it ready for the flower bed in approximately 2-3 weeks. As with all tender annuals, wait until all danger of frost is past before transplanting seedlings outside.
Mexican sunflower has a branching habit; for this reason this fast growing annual provides dozens of flowers on any given day. Two primary cultivars are available; ‘Torch’ grows approximately four feet tall and almost as wide. For smaller applications look for ‘Fiesta del Sol’ for it limits its growth to about two and one-half feet. In your landscape, use Tithonia ‘Torch’ to anchor a sunny annual bed or create a seasonal screen. ‘Fiesta del Sol’ is happy to fill in the gaps of a perennial border.
Annuals are all about the flowers; Tithonia’s bold color is a stand-out butterfly attractant providing nectar for butterflies throughout the summer and into fall. Flowers often continue to bloom as late as November. Although most butterflies are gone by then, the orange blends right in with harvest hues and autumn mums.
Plant in average garden soil and, in the absence of rain, water one or two times a week. Tithonia benefits from weekly dead-heading. Use small shears or pruners to remove the spent flowers for the hollow stems do not snap off easily (or cleanly) with the thumb and forefinger. Thankfully with four foot plants, no bending or kneeling is necessary for this small task.
LeeAnn Barton has worked with nurseries for more than 20 years. She digs in the dirt in Stillwater. Direct any questions to her, especially about tree selection, by emailing email@example.com.