Lifestyle Outdoors

The Observant Gardener: Tithonias and Swallowtails

The Observant Gardener

Eastern Black Swallowtail. Photo by Judith Canty Graves

By Judith Canty Graves

One of the most exciting times in the summer is when the Mexican Sunflower, known as tithonia, blooms in July. This fast-growing plant germinates quickly, produces hardy seedlings and seems to double in size every day. After a few weeks, it can reach five feet in height and be covered with vibrant, orange blooms.

I plant tithonia seeds after Mother’s Day and then watch them grow. At first, the seedlings are tiny and need care. I water them when conditions are dry, and once they are about a foot tall, they are on their own. Tithonia loves heat and sun. Once the June heat begins, that is like fuel for them, and they grow rapidly. Suddenly, the small seedlings are reaching for the sky, growing to a height of more than six feet and a width of more than four feet at maturity. By July, their vibrant orange blossoms attract many pollinators to my garden for the rest of the summer and into the early fall.

The pollinator most attracted to this striking plant is the swallowtail butterfly. To me, tithonia and swallowtails are the most wonderful combination of plant and insect. They go together every summer in spectacular fashion. To see multiple butterflies fluttering through my backyard on a summer day is a thrill!

With their vibrant colors, markings and a wingspan of three to five inches, swallowtails are stunning in their appearance. An adult swallowtail has a short life span of only around 14 days, but it is prolific, producing up to three generations during the spring and summer. The name “swallowtail” comes from the pointed tips of the wings that resemble a swallow’s tail.

At least two varieties of swallowtails are regular visitors to my garden. There is the Eastern Tiger, with black markings on yellow like a tiger’s coat, and there is the distinctive Eastern Black, with its striking combination of blue, black and orange dots under the wings.

In recent years, I have read articles about the “Leave the Leaves” movement, which refers to the practice of letting leaves stay on garden beds over the winter so that the butterfly eggs laid on the leaves can hatch in the spring. When we rake leaves into bags and send them to the landfill, the eggs go too, reducing the number of butterflies in our yards the next spring. A few years ago, I began to let the leaves stay on my beds until early April when I started seeing butterflies in the yard. I am glad I did that after seeing butterflies emerge.

If you plant tithonia seeds, find a spot in full sun and be sure to allow plenty of space for them to grow. Each summer they will produce hundreds of orange blooms that will produce thousands of seeds in the fall. Birds will eat many seeds, but seeds will also fall to the ground and the tithonia will rise again the next spring. This is a dependable, self-seeding plant that doesn’t need a lot of care. The colorful blooms and the pollinators they attract are guaranteed to bring much enjoyment to the home gardener.

Judith Canty Graves is a home gardener with a background in photojournalism. She lives in Asheville. To see more of her garden photography, visit

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