Though considered “coarse” by our doyen of Southern gardening, Elizabeth Lawrence–among others–she–along with those others–unfailingly mentions in the same breath that the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia roundifolia) sets Monet’s gardens at Giverny ablaze in late summer, their open branches tipped with blossoms of vermilion and orange that tower over his gentle lines and mounds of green.
The Mexican sunflower was first described by the British botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, who visited the United States in 1877. He came at the invitation of American botanist Asa Gray, who with Dalton intended to investigate the connection between the floras of eastern United States and those of eastern continental Asia and Japan. It was during this visit that he visited the American Southwest where—in addition to meeting Brigham Young—Hooker collected specimens of the plant, which he sent to England that year along with over a thousand others. As is the custom, Hooker, as the discoverer of the species, was entitled to give it a name, and for reasons that may forever remain unfathomed, he named it after the bridegroom of Aurora, goddess of the dawn.
Tithonus was a prince of Troy, the son of King Laomedon by the Naiad Strymo. He was a talented musician with a beautiful voice. His brother was Priam, the last king of Troy. Aurora fell in love with the young prince, and took him to Olympus to be her groom. Aurora asked Zeus to make him immortal and he agreed, but she had not thought to ask also that he should remain young. So it came to pass that Tithonus grew old, but could not die.
Helpless at last, unable to move hand or foot, he prayed for death, and Aurora, with a feeling for the natural fitness of things, turned him into a cicada that sings to her as the morning warms.