Though considered “coarse” by our doyen of Southern gardening, Elizabeth Lawrence (among others), she, along with almost every garden writer, mentions the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia roundifolia) in the same breath with Monet’s gardens at Giverny where in late summer, tithonia, along with many varieties of the more familiar helianthus sunflowers, set the artist’s oasis ablaze, their towering branches tipped with blossoms of red, yellow, and orange.
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 he grew old, but could not die. Helpless at last, unable to move hand or foot, he prayed for death, but there was no release for him; he must live on forever with old age pressing upon him. In time, he shrank and shriveled until at last Aurora, with a feeling for the natural fitness of things, turned him into a cicada, who sings in the morning sun.
Seeds must be started in warm soil; likewise, transplanted seedlings will not tolerate cool weather. If begun in April, the plants require staking by September. Though smaller, more compact varieties are available, these flowers are best grown for their height and profusion of bloom. The old ‘Torch’ is my stand-by, unmatched for height and color in sunny beds. Tithonia reseeds sporadically, but volunteers are vigorous.