Mexican sunflower attracts pollinators galore to garden | TribLIVE.com
Jessica Walliser, Columnist

Mexican sunflower attracts pollinators galore to garden

Jessica Walliser
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Jessica Walliser | for the Tribune-Review
The brilliant orange blooms of tithonia, shown here with hot pink zinnias, are a pollinator magnet.

Late every summer, I’m amazed at how different my flower garden looks than it did in the spring. While I grow many perennials that produce beautiful blooms, the show-stoppers in my garden are often the annuals I plant.

I always make it a point to grow cosmos, sunflowers, marigolds and salvias in my front garden each year, but there are many other annuals I experiment with each season.

One plant that became a personal favorite a few years ago is known as the Mexican sunflower. I originally grew it after seeing it at a friend’s house, and it’s since become a staple in my back garden. This season, however, I also grew it in my front flower bed along the driveway. Several neighbors have asked me about this wonderful plant and the large number of butterflies it attracts.

Known botanically as Tithonia rotundifolia, Mexican sunflower is hands down the most “active” pollinator plant I grow in my garden. The butterflies far prefer this plant to the butterfly bush and almost every other nectar plant in my yard. At the moment, it’s 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Hard to believe an annual plant can grow so large in a single season!

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, especially the bumble bees.

Tithonia is native to Mexico and Central America. Here in Pennsylvania, it’s grown as a warm-season annual. If you’d like to grow tithonia of your own, 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. Alternatively, you may be able to find young plants at some local nurseries. I found a few at the May Mart at Phipps earlier this spring.

The sturdy branches of tithonia produce 2-inch-wide, deep orange flowers from early July until the first frost.

As an added bonus, tithonia is unbothered by heat. In fact, it always seems to do best during hot, dry summers. This year as been a particularly glorious year for them; each of my plants is currently sporting at least 50 blooms. You do not have to deadhead the plants for continued bloom production, but doing so improves the overall appearance of the plant.

Tithonia does not need to be fed or regularly watered once it’s established for the season. And despite their tall stature, the plants never need to be staked as long as they are located in full sun.

Every fall, if you’d like to save seeds, allow a few of the flowers to dry on the plant. Snip off the spent flowers and lay them on a paper towel on the kitchen counter to dry. A week or so later, pull the flowers open and brush the seeds out with your fingers. 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.

Though the deer do take an occasional nibble out of my Mexican sunflowers, they’re otherwise unbothered by pests or diseases.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden,” “Good Bug, Bad Bug,” and her newest title, “Container Gardening Complete.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com. Send your gardening or landscaping questions to [email protected] or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.

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