Mexican sunflowers provide easy-to-grow, warm blooms

Sunflowers are valued by all types of gardeners as a simple, fun annual to keep in your yard. They lend a burst of color to your landscaping, provide edible seeds to those willing to harvest them, and grow to impressive heights.

Gardeners who want to try a new spin on this traditional flower may be delighted by the Mexican sunflower. Also known as Tithonia rotundifolia, Mexican sunflowers are part of a daisy family.

Don't let the name fool you; Mexican sunflowers can grow to impressive heights, but they're much bushier than traditional sunflowers. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension says the flowers grow on central stalks up to six feet tall, though the plant's foliage will also branch out considerably. The Missouri Botanical Garden says the spread of the plant can be as wide as three feet.

Tithonia flowers are usually red or orange with yellow centers, and measure about three inches across. The flowers appear in mid-summer and last until the autumn frost. The plant's foliage consists of course, fuzzy leaves.

Mexican sunflowers can either be started indoors or directly sown in the ground. If using the former method, the Cornell University Cooperative Extension recommends starting them six to eight weeks before the last anticipated spring frost. If using the latter method, plant the seeds outdoors once any frost danger has passed.

It is best to grow the plant in an area that receives full sunlight. Mexican sunflowers can tolerate high temperatures, so you won't need to worry about scorching.

Soil should drain well, but doesn't need to be rich in nutrients. The Missouri Botanical Garden says Mexican sunflowers do best in poor soil, since rich soil will produce lush foliage and weaken the flower stems.

Seeds need light to germinate, so they should be sown on the surface of the soil. The Canadian company West Coast Seeds recommends leaving about two feet between plants.

Be patient with the plant. Benjamin Ranyard, owner of the British gardening company Higgledy Garden, says flowers will bloom about 14 weeks after sowing.

Mexican sunflowers don't require much in the way of maintenance. The University of Wisconsin-Madison says you can pinch back the plants to encourage bushier growth, which will also make the plant sturdier. Staking the flower stems can help protect them from breaking in strong winds.

Natural rainfall may be sufficient to keep the plant irrigated. Mexican sunflowers are tolerant of drought, and West Coast Seeds says you'll only need to water them during extended periods of dry weather. Deadhead the plant, or remove spent blossoms, to prolong the flowering period.

The tall flowers work well as a backdrop to smaller plants in borders or garden beds. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension says Mexican sunflowers can be mixed with other warm colors or used alongside flowers with cooler shades to create a variety of hues. The Cornell University Cooperative Extension says the flowers also work well to attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

Mexican sunflowers can be used as cut flowers, but use caution when harvesting them. Ranyard says the stems are hollow and can break easily.

The plant is generally resistant to diseases or pests, and deer will steer clear of it. The Missouri Botanical Garden says you may need to remove slugs or snails.

Tithonias are more likely to falter if they don't receive adequate heat. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension says seeds directly sown in the garden may not bloom if summer temperatures are too cool.

The plant is an annual, so it will need to be planted again in subsequent seasons. However, the flowers will produce distinct triangular seeds, which can easily be collected and stored for this purpose.

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