Monday, December 1, 2008

Mexican sunflowers prove beauty can emerge from blah origins

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 1, 2008)

The area above my kitchen sink smells wonderful. It's not from a new air freshener or dish soap. The delicious fragrance is due entirely to a large bouquet of Mexican sunflowers that my daughter, Amber, picked the other day.

What a cheery gift that was. The gold-hued daisylike flowers give off a sweet aroma that smells mildly of honey. It's an outdoorsy odor evoking images of garden benches, long walks in the woods and strolls along country roads.

I took from Amber her handful of happiness and placed it in a large green vase on the counter where, whenever I clean up the kitchen and wash dishes, I can inhale a bit of nature. Sweet smells to ease the drudgery of housework.

Mexican sunflower, also known as Tithonia diversifolia, is a gangly plant that grows as broad as it grows tall. The three near my son's garden are approximately 10 feet tall and equally as wide with dozens of yellow blooms in various stages of maturity.

It's an undeniable space hog. Native to Mexico and Central America, this perennial bloomer looks and grows like a giant weed. To some people -- my husband included -- that's all it is.

"Do you really want to keep that plant?" he asked a few months ago when we were redesigning the area where Tithonia was growing. "What do you like about it?"

What's not to like? It's a "neglect-me-and-I'll-still-thrive" plant that blooms profusely. The flowers, which appear anytime from late summer through early December, are huge, measuring up to 5 inches across. Although it seems to take forever for the first buds to open, once they do the plant produces a steady display of eye-catching blooms that flower continually for at least a month.

Although they are supposedly bothered by snails and slugs, I've found these drought-tolerant plants to be undaunted by insect pests. With their giant blooms and pollen-filled stamens, Tithonia attracts far more beneficial bugs than pest problems. Bees and butterflies are constantly flitting from one bloom to another. The only care we give it is an annual addition of rich soil and heavy mulch.

"But it's ugly," my husband insists. "It's scrawny and sprawls all over the place."

He's not completely wrong. A non-blooming Tithonia won't win any beauty contests. But take the same plant in season -- when its marble-size buds are beginning to burst open -- and my, what a showstopper!

A Mexican sunflower in full bloom will knock you off your feet. Ralph's right that it takes up space, and the branches on this multistemmed perennial do have a propensity to bend down, take root and expand the plant's already broad profile. But that's a good thing, isn't it? Ease of propagation is an acknowledged horticultural asset.

I took advantage of that asset a few months ago when we were about to dig up the large Tithonia growing near our bananas. I had given in to my husband's request to replace the flowering bush with Angel Mist, one of our favorite clumping bamboos, but before we moved the sunflower, I decided to hedge my bets.

I clipped off about a dozen stems and stuck them in pots in case the transplanted Tithonia didn't make it. Wouldn't you know, the transplant took and the starts all survived.

Now, in addition to the relocated Tithonia -- which was literally dumped into a ditch and still managed to produce blooms -- our collection includes three large specimens my son planted last year and the 12 cuttings growing (overflowing) in the nursery.

The other day, Ralph pointed to the cuttings and asked, "Where do you want to plant them?"

"Well," I said as I pondered his question, "I want them to be someplace where I'll see them when they're blooming. Somewhere big enough to let them sprawl and far enough away that I won't mind how they look when they're not in bloom. Across the lake. That would be good."

And that's where they're going. Next week, the plan is to dig up a big area across from our house, fill the hole with organic matter and plant all 12 plants in one spot.

If successful, not only will I be able to enjoy the delightful sight and smell of a Mexican sunflower bouquet on the kitchen counter, I'll soon be soaking in the spectacle of hundreds of golden blooms reflected in the calm water of the lake.

Beauty is not an all-or-nothing deal. Sometimes, the prettiest flowers appear on the most gangly, rough-textured, common-looking stalks. The contrast between what you see and what you get is what makes the result so exciting -- a burst of beauty out of something so blah presents a plethora of breathtaking possibilities.

If Tithonia isn't a plant worth saving, I don't know what is.

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