I grow many flowers in my garden to attract butterflies and bees. Right now I have sunflowers, cosmos, zinnias, bee balm, black-eyed susan, coreopsis, echinacea and bachelor buttons blooming. But by far, the very best annual plants that attracts butterflies in my garden are the Mexican Sunflowers, or Tithonia rotundifolia. Seriously, these plants are going INSANE with all the butterfly visitors.
So far, I’ve spotted Monarchs, Skippers, Swallowtail, Gulf Fritillary, Mournful Duskywing, Painted Lady, Buckeye, and a handful of others I haven’t yet been able to identify (like a tiny white, blue and brown one, that’s about the size of nickel- anyone know?). Tithonia is in the Asteraceae family, and the large flower heads make great landing spots for the butterflies- a crucial requirement of plants that attract butterflies. This isn’t a host species for any butterfly, so they won’t lay eggs on it, but it sure has been providing a steady supply of nectar, and pollen for the bees.
Tithonia is not for the faint of heart. It gets HUGE! I have them planted amongst my vegetables, but really they could use a space all to themselves. My plants are about 4-6 feet tall, and just as wide. They grow from many branches, and its easy for them to take over. I have them planted in 3 of my garden beds, next to tomatillos, beans, tomatoes, & cucumbers. The tomatoes and the beans are holding their own, but the tomatillos and the cucumbers are getting lost. Next year, I might dedicate a full bed just for them, but I think spacing them out though out the garden was nice because they add lots of color. I also plan on throwing out seeds in the back 40, in hopes to make a Tithonia jungle.
In addition to the numerous butterflies I’ve seen visiting, the bees also love them. I don’t deadhead, but instead leave the flowerhead to dry. I’ve removed a few to save for seeds for next following year, but otherwise I leave the plants, even if completely dead, standing for as long as possible. In the fall, they attract flocks of tiny goldfinches, who will balance on the stems and the flower heads to eat the seeds. Watching the finches makes me just as happy as watching the butterflies. Tithonia is really the perfect wildlife garden annual!
I grew my plants from seed, which I got from Botanical Interests. I started them inside and under lights on March 6, and they germinated quickly. I transplanted outside into my garden beds on April 17. They started blooming on June 25, and have had a steady supply of blooms since then. I expect to see blooms until September.
If you want a plant that attracts butterflies, bee and birds to your garden, I encourage you to grow these! They are super easy to grow. If you sow outside, wait until a week or two after the last expected frost, or inside 6-8 weeks before last frost. They need light to germinate, so barely press into the soil and don’t cover. In the garden, they need full sun and will grow to 4-6′ tall. They are said to tolerate deer, and need low to medium water. These are an heirloom flower, and open pollinated, so you can save seeds for the following year.