Name: Red sunflower, Mexican sunflower, Tithonia.

Botanical name: The botanical name is tithonia, derived from a Latin name. The species generally grown is Tithonia rotundifolia, which means round-leaf, and there is some interest too in Tithonia diversifolia, which means leaves of diverse shape, which is used as a natural insecticide in parts of tropical Africa.

Family: Tithonia is part of the huge, daisy family, the Asteraceae, also known as the Compositae, because of their complex flowers composed of a large number of tiny true flowers, the outside florets being possessed of large petals to attract pollinating insects. The flowers are generally 8cm in diameter.

Growing red sunflower

Daisy family plants are among the best providers of nectar and pollen to bees and other pollinators such as hoverflies, wasps, butterflies and moths. The red sunflower matches up to these family qualities very well, especially providing late summer and autumn feeding for butterflies. Although the red sunflower is part of the daisy family, as the true sunflower is, its flowers are not as big and its structure is more bushy in shape. Its brilliant flowers in shades of yellow, orange and red are more closely linked with cosmos, dahlias and especially zinnia.

Being a tropical plant, Tithonia is a very rapid and vigorous grower. It is an annual or short-lived perennial flower, but it is usually grown as an annual sown in spring and planted out at the end of May when the danger of frost has passed, just the same as planting out dahlias at that time. Unlike dahlias, which like rich soil, the Mexican sunflower has a capacity to grow in poor soil that is relatively dry.

Too-rich feeding leads to leafy growth, reduced flowering and a propensity to be affected by mildew in particular. One requirement that is absolutely essential is full sunshine, which is understandable in a plant that had its origins in Mexico and Central America.

Choosing Mexican sunflowers

There is considerable variation between Mexican sunflower types. Apart from the variation in colour: yellow, orange and red, the plants can vary a lot in size, some up to 2m and even more. A large plant in full flower is an arresting sight, usually placed in the back of a border like the taller dahlias, and the later-flowering true sunflowers and the popular variety ‘Lemon Queen’. The plants also look really well with the blue flowers of Aconitum ‘Carmichaelii’.

Because of the height of the basic species, the seed houses have developed shorter varieties. ‘Torchlight’ has orange-red flowers and grows to 1.2m. ‘Arcadian Blend’ is similar but is a mixture of yellow, orange and red kinds. ‘Goldfinger’ has rich-orange flowers, but is relatively small at about 30cm.

By no means common, the red sunflower offers a fresh new presence in your late summer/autumn borders.

Pendulous begonias

Pendulous forms of the large tuberous rooted begonias have become very popular in recent years.

The main reason for this popularity is the excellent results that people have been achieving with these attractive flowers. These pendulous forms produce a much greater number of flowers per plant, even if they are smaller. The drooping nature of the stems sees the plant covered with flowers down its sides and these also last very well by comparison with the large flowers of the standard kinds.

When filled with water after rain there is a tendency for the large-flowered kinds to shed some of the flowers, and if wind-assisted, practically all may be shed. As night-time temperatures drop towards freezing, wait until the first signs of frost damage are seen. At that point, take the plants in pots indoors to a shed or garage and stack them on their sides to dry. Check them for signs of vine weevil presence and remove the grubs, if found. Check too for tubers becoming dry and rubbery. Soak the pots for an hour to replenish water supply.

Jobs to do this week

Trees, shrubs and roses

A lot of young trees and shrubs died, and some mature trees too, due to the hot dry weather of August. Many are still struggling but most have recovered well. Shrub roses and ramblers could now be pruned by removing some of the shoots that flowered.


After the rain everything got a boost. Plant spring bulbs as soon as possible – the fresher they are going into the ground, the better they will flower. Take cuttings of tender plants such as geraniums, marguerites, fuchsias and argyranthemums to carry over winter.


When the rain came, grass benefited from the increased breakdown of organic matter in the soil and the subsequent release of nitrogen. Continue mowing regularly. Prepare now for sowing new lawn areas, or re-sowing this month or next. Keep edges neat.

Fruit, vegetables and herbs

Do not let weeds go to seed to avoid building up trouble for years to come. Raspberry and tayberry canes that have finished fruiting could be pruned out and the new canes tied into position. If there are too many canes, reduce them to 10 or 15 per metre of row.

Greenhouse and house plants

Tidy up the greenhouse now and do not overwater or splash water about. As the nights grow cooler, grey mould disease becomes a problem for many greenhouse plants and good hygiene is the best way to avoid it. Continue to train and side-shoot tomatoes.