Tithonia

close-up of orange Mexican sunflower

Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia)

Though commonly called Mexican sunflowers, they’re not sunflowers at all. But they are in the same family as sunflowers, the composite family, which is the daisy family. Composite flowers have a center composed of many florets—the pollen and nectar parts—surrounded by petals. The petals act like a beacon drawing in pollinators to the florets. And Tithonia definitely does pollinator attraction with its bright, clear, orange petals.

Tithonia comes from Mexico and down to Central America.

It’s can handle tough conditions but the flowers need a gentle touch in harvesting and arranging. But they’re so worthwhile because they add such an intense splash clear, strong orange color to summer bouquets.

Flowers

The flowers are 3½” wide. The stems are velvety like the foliage and need special care in handling. They’re hollow and are easily crushed, so beware. This quality makes it difficult for flower growers to work with them. But as a home gardener, treat them with care and you’ll be able to use Tithonia in your home bouquets. (Although I did make mixed bouquets with Tithonia and brought them to farmers markets and stores with only a few mishaps.)

The flowers last at least a week in the vase.

The variety ‘Torch’ has been selected as best for cutting. There are two others, a yellow and a red one, see Favorite varieties below.

Plants

Tithonia forms a tall, robust, well-branched plant that can be used as an annual hedge. The species, Tithonia rotundiflora, gets 6-7 ft. tall. The variety, Tithonia rotundifolia ‘Torch’ grows 5-6 ft. tall. ‘Torch’ has been selected for better cutting flowers.

Growing the plants

Tithonia is easy to grow and start from seed. Direct sow when the soil is warmed or start in cells or pots.

It tolerates hot, dry sites. I give them good ammended garden soil and water deep and infrequently.

Once they start to bloom it’s important to keep them deadheaded so they keep blooming. At the end of the season let them go, the seeds will attract birds.

Harvesting

As mentioned above, the stems are hollow. So handle gently when clipping them and arranging them. Some flowers have the next node too close behind them so you may want to clip the side shoots off. If so, cut the stem at the next node down and remove the side-shoots.

Remember that cutting to a lower node that has no flower buds yet will give you longer flower stems in the long run.

Favorite varieties

‘Torch’ is the only one I’ve grown. It’s the orange I want.

There is a yellow called ‘Yellow Torch’ that looks just as strong, smooth, and clear.

There’s also a red, called ‘Red Torch’. It looks, as far as I can tell, like a rather scarlet color. I would like to try it if I can find the space.

Yellow tithonia flower cluster
'Yellow Torch'

How many plants

One plant in a home garden could give you all you need. But since it’s so good for pollinators and beneficial insects, and so big and tall, it makes a nice annual hedge in your garden if you have the space.

Sources

Most seed companies carry Tithonia, including  Johnny’s Seeds. For ‘Yellow Torch’ go to Swallowtail Garden Seeds or Select Seeds. For all the Tithonia colors, go to Outsidepride.com.

The seeds are often available at your local nursery, too.

Special info

Here’s my opinion on the ‘Yellow Torch’. While I love the look of it, it blooms at a time when there are many other yellows from the garden; sunflowers, Golden Glow (if you can get your hands on it), perennial sunflowers, and African marigolds. So I don’t feel the need for giving another yellow flower the space. However, it has a nice smooth texture, and gets big, so I may give it a try one day.