Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Mexican Sunflowers Provide Support for Beans

Mexican Sunflower

Mexican sunflower is a warm season annual with a stout, gangly habit, growing to 5-6 ft (1.5-1.8 m) tall and 3-4 ft (0.9-1.2 m) wide. The leaves are coarse, 3-lobed, 4-10 in (12.7-25 cm) long and 2-4 in (5-10 cm) wide. The leaves and stems are covered with a soft downy fuzz. The numerous flower heads are brilliant red-orange, like daisies or zinnias, and about 3 in (7.6 cm) across. The beautiful cultivar, 'Torch', was named an All America Selection and is the probably the most popular. Dwarf cultivars are also available including 'Goldfinger' and 'Fiesta Del Sol' that grow to about 3 ft (0.9 m) in height and perfect for smaller gardens.

There are about 10 species of Tithonia native to Mexico and Central America.

Light: Likes full sun, but can tolerate filtered sun or partial shade.
Moisture: Needs well-drained soil. Mexican sunflower is heat and drought resistant but water when dry for a good look.
Hardiness: USDA Zones 5 to 10 (4 if started indoors). Killed by frost, but will reseed itself next spring.
Propagation: Seeds.

Mexican sunflower is beautiful in cut flower arrangements, but the flower heads are borne on fragile hollow peduncles (flower stems) that must be cut carefully with a sharp knife lest they bend and collapse. Plant Mexican sunflower behind beds or borders where their coarse texture, rangy habit and vivid flowers will stand above less boisterous plantings. Unless you're growing one of the compact varieties, they will need plenty of room.

Few plants as large and spectacular as Mexican sunflower can complete two generations in a single summer. In the southern U.S., Mexican sunflower seeds planted in March or April will produce plants that flower and go to seed in June. Those seeds will fall to the ground, germinate, and produce a second generation of flowers that will mature before the first frost in October!

Yellow Torch Mexican sunflowers
The Mexican sunflower cultivar 'Yellow Torch' is as beautiful and appealing to butterflies as it's companion 'Red Torch'. Click to download a large version of this image.
Mexican sunflower is one of the best flowers you can grow for attracting butterflies. In late summer, a stand of tithonia may attract a half dozen or more butterfly and skipper species with one or more individuals on every single blossom!

The composite family is so named because their members have flower heads that consist of many flowers, usually of two different types. Ray flowers look superficially like petals around the margin, and disk flowers are crowded together in the center of the composite flower head. Both kinds of flowers may have pollen-producing stamens and seed-producing ovaries. Use a hand lens to see these parts for yourself.


Radio Scripts

Package 30, Script 7
October 1993
Mexican Sunflowers Provide Support for Beans

Content: Sunflowers can provide support for bean plants. They also protect the soil and add nutrients and organic matter as they decompose.

Julio Cesar is a farmer in the Department of San Marcos, Guatemala. One of his main crops is beans. Julio uses a local plant, the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia diversifolia), to protect the beans and help them grow.

Here is how he does it.

First he plants a row of Mexican sunflowers. One or two days later he plants beans in the same row. The idea is that the beans will eventually grow up the sunflower stems and use them as support. After the sunflowers have grown for some time, little shoots begin to grow out of the stems. Julio cuts off these shoots. Otherwise the shoots grow into branches which prevent the beans from growing straight up. He cuts the shoots off the sunflower stems about every 15 days until the bean plants are well established and wrapped around the tall, strong, stems of the sunflowers.

After that Julio lets the sunflower shoots grow - this way the plant produces more branches and leaves which will be a good mulch on the ground next year. When the shoots grow bigger and form branches they provide shade which keeps Julio cool at harvest time.

This practice has lots of advantages. The sunflower is a cover crop when the beans are growing, keeping the soil protected. And Julio has stopped buying fertilizers for his beans. At the end of the season the sunflowers add nutrients and organic matter to the soil as they decompose. So the sunflowers act first as a mulch on the soil and then decompose adding organic matter and nutrients to the soil. Also when the flowers have died they can be dried and used as fuel.
Information Source

* This script is based on an interview with Julio Cesar Pereira, a farmer from Aldea Sombrerito Bajo, Nuevo Progreso, San Marcos, Guatemala.


Floridata: Tithonia rotundiflora
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Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
View of Lake Atitlan and volcano from my apartment balcony in Panajachel. Taken by Catherine Todd June 2008.