Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia): Seven Butterflies Under Its Sweet, Orange-Scarlet Allure

by DerdriuMarriner

The brilliant oranges and reds of Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) serve as a siren for butterflies, which are of equal beauty. Seven devoted visitors are identified.

Tithonia rotundifolia commonly is known as Mexican sunflower.

A New World plant native to Mexico and Central America, Mexican sunflowers are treasured worldwide for their beauty and for their attractiveness to butterflies.

Seven butterflies allured by Mexican sunflower's irresistible nectar are
•cloudless giant sulphur,
•Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus),
•long-tailed skipper (Urbanus proteus),
•monarch (Danaus plexippus),
•olive hairstreak (Mitoura grineus),
•painted lady (Vanessa cardui),
•queen (Danaus gilippus).

female yellow-form Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) nectaring Mexican sunflower

Aston Township, southeastern Pennsylvania
Aston Township, southeastern Pennsylvania

Mexican sunflower


Tithonia rotundifolia is commonly known as Mexican sunflower. Its full scientific name is Tithonia rotundifolia (Mill.) S. F. Blake (1917). Tagetes rotundifolia Mill. (1768) is its basionym (Greek: βάσις, basis, "step" + ὄνυμα, -onuma, "name"), which is a previously published scientific name upon which a new name later is based for purposes of taxonomy (Greek: τάξις, taxis, "arrangement" + νομία, nomia, "method"). Other scientific synonyms are Helianthus speciosus Hook. (1834) and Tithonia speciosa (Hook.) Griseb. (1866).


Distribution: Mexican and Central American native with hardy versatility

A native of Mexico and Central America, Mexican sunflower is an annual that has garnered worldwide acclaim for its universal adaptability, drought and heat resistance, and resplendent colors. With a robust spread of up to 2 feet (0.6 meters) and a congenial height of 3 to 6 feet (0.9 to 1.8 meters), Mexican sunflowers blend comfortably with private and public gardens.


Mexican sunflower

Urbana, east central Illinois
Urbana, east central Illinois

Externals: What Mexican sunflowers look like


As a member of the aster-daisy-sunflower family Asteraceae, Mexican sunflower characteristically presents two types of florets (French: florette, diminutive of flor, "flower"), that is, small individual flowers. Disc florets are tubular-shaped miniatures burgeoning from the center of the flower. Ray florets ring the circle of disc florets with showy ligulae (Latin: ligula/lingula, "strap," from lingua, "tongue"), that is, tonguelike or strap-shaped rays.

Orange to scarlet ray florets contrast aesthetically with yellow disc florets. A generous diameter of around 3 inches (8 centimeters) provides sufficient space for joint sipping by several nectarivores.

Downy fuzz gently blankets the thick, long stems and velvety soft leaves, which measure 3 to 12 inches (8 to 30 centimeters) in length.

Popular cultivars include 'Torch', a strapping 6-foot variety with rich, vivid orange-red flowerheads, and 'Fiesta del Sol', an early blooming, compact dwarf, about 3 feet (0.9 meters) in height, with dazzlingly profuse orange flowerheads.


closeup of Mexican sunflower's lobed leaves, which, along with brilliant flowers, are edible

Cambridge University Botanic Garden, Cambridgeshire, east England
Cambridge University Botanic Garden, Cambridgeshire, east England

Pollination allure: Enticingly colorful, deliciously nectariferous


Mexican sunflowers are favored by hummingbirds and butterflies alike. Devoted butterfly visitors include:

  • monarch (Danaus plexippus),
  • queen (Danaus gilippus),
  • Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus),
  • olive hairstreak (Mitoura grineus),
  • painted lady (Vanessa cardui),
  • long-tailed skipper (Urbanus proteus),
  • cloudless giant sulphur (Phoebis sennae).


Queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus) and monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) nectaring Tithonia rotundifolia

Butterfly Rainforest, Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville, north central Florida
Butterfly Rainforest, Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville, north central Florida


Monarchs: quintessential butterflies

In North America, monarchs flutter throughout the United States and southern Canada. As the only migratory North American butterfly, monarchs yearly follow ancient flyways, whereby eastern and midwestern monarchs are destined for central Mexico while western monarchs overwinter along California's central and southern coasts.

A New World native of iconic stature, monarchs are honored as the state butterfly of Vermont and West Virginia and as the state insect of Alabama, Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota and Texas.

Tawny orange wings are defined by black veins and black margins, spotted with rows of white. White spots splash across the forewings. Their wingspan measures 3.375 to 4.875 inches (8.6 to 12.4 centimeters).

Associated with milkweeds (genus Asclepias), monarchs also enjoy butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), ironweed (genus Vernonia), lilac (genus Syringa), and zinnia (genus Zinnia).

Apart from a few lookalike species, monarchs (Danaus plexippus) are so eminently recognizable and so chromatically familiar that their color scheme, so engagingly beautiful in its sparkling simplicity, and their flight, so lilting in its graceful certitude, virtually connote the quintessence of butterfly charms and perfection.



Queen butterflies: smaller monarch lookalikes

Although smaller and darker, queen butterflies (Danaus gilippus) are reminiscent of monarchs (Danaus plexippus), fellow milkweed butterflies in the subfamily Danainae, with whom they also share a passion for Mexican sunflower nectar.

Queens traverse the extreme southern United States from southern California to Florida by way of the Gulf of Mexico coastal states. Occasionally queens expand their territory north to the Great Plains and the Midwest.

Queenly wings are orange-brown outlined in black with white spots. Forewings, that is, wings closer to the head, also are speckled with white spots. Their wingspan measures 2.625 to 3.875 inches (6.7 to 9.8 centimeters).

In addition to Mexican sunflowers, queens are enticed by butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), ironweeds (genus Vernonia), and zinnia (genus Zinnia).


female Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) nectaring Mexican sunflower

Aston Township, Delaware County, southeastern Pennsylvania
Aston Township, Delaware County, southeastern Pennsylvania

Eastern tiger swallowtails: High-flying freedom above treetops


A New World native, Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) holds sway throughout the eastern and midwestern United States, ranging from southern Vermont south to Florida and the Gulf Coast states and west from eastern Texas up through the Great Plains.

The Eastern tiger swallowtail is honored as the state butterfly of Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, and South Carolina and as the state insect of Virginia.

Males have yellow wings, outlined with yellow-spotted black margins and black veins. Four black stripes cap each forewing. The inner black margins of hind wings are emblazoned with a row of red and blue splotches. Their wingspan measures 3.5 to 6.5 inches (9 to 16.5 centimeters).

Female Eastern tiger swallowtails, being dimorphic (Greek: δι-, di-, "two" + μορφή, morphē, "form"), have two forms distinguished by coloration, one of which is similar to the male. The other coloration, a dark morph, mimics the dark forewings and iridescent blue hind wings of the unpalatable pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor) in order to deter predators.

Eastern tiger swallowtails welcome sylvan landscapes in rural, suburban, and urban settings, with deciduous (Latin: deciduus, "falling off") trees whose parameters of spring budding and autumn shedding parallel this butterfly's adulthood.

Eastern tiger swallowtails often fly high to seek solitary freedom above the forest canopy.

In addition to Mexican sunflowers, Eastern tiger swallowtails relish butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), ironweed (genus Vernonia), milkweed (genus Asclepias), oregano (Origanum vulgare), and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).


Olive hairstreak butterfly (Mitoura grineus)

"Olive" Juniper Hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus gryneus)
"Olive" Juniper Hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus gryneus)

A delicate beauty enamored of juniper trees


Mitoura grineus is commonly known as olive hairstreak butterfly. A scientific synonym is Callophrys gryneus (Hübner, [1819]).

A North American native, olive hairstreaks are found in the eastern United States.

Olive hairstreaks have delicately colored olive brown wings with white and rust accents. Their petite wingspan daintily measures around 1 inch (2.6 centimeters).

Olive hairstreak quietly blends into habitats with bluffs, open fields, and dry, rocky expanses. Olive hairstreak has the nickname of Juniper because of its devotion to junipers (genus Juniperus) in the coniferous (Latin: conus, "cone" + ferre, "to bear"), that is, cone-bearing, cypress family Cupressaceae. In its habitats, which feature bluffs, open fields, barrens, and dry or rocky open places, olive hairstreak never strays far from its beloved junipers, which are the hosts for its larval stage as a caterpillar. Its larval coloring, deep green body, interspersed with lighter markings, perfectly camouflages the hungry larva against the juniper's similarly shaded needles.

In addition to Mexican sunflowers, olive hairstreaks partake of nectar from butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), hyssop (genus Agastache), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), and zinnia (genus Zinnia).


Painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui)

Painted Lady in August
Painted Lady in August

Painted lady butterflies: Citizens of the world with a passion for tints of purple


Vanessa cardui is commonly known as the painted lady butterfly.

Painted ladies are nicknamed cosmopolitans, for their worldwide distribution in temperate and tropical areas, and thistle butterflies, for their affinity for the lovely, noble, purple-tinted flowers of thistles, flowering plants mostly in the family Asteraceae.

Painted ladies have a mosaic of orange, brown, and black coloring with dashes of white on their forewings.

Their wingspan usually measures 2 to 2.875 inches (5.1 to 7.3 centimeters).

In addition to the Mexican sunflower and the love of its life, thistle, painted ladies favor nectar from butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), and chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus).


Long-tailed skipper (Urbanus proteus) Source: John Seaborn Gray, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr

Long-tailed Skipper in November
Long-tailed Skipper in November

Long-tailed skippers: Shimmering elegance of green bean lovers


Urbanus proteus is commonly known as long-tailed skipper butterfly.

Long-tailed skippers range from Argentina north through Central America and into

the southern United States from southern California eastwards through the Gulf Coast states and Florida. The openness of transition from the edges of woodlands to open fields characterizes their habitats.

Long-tailed skippers elegantly shimmer with a central blue iridescence that radiates into brown with white to buff flecks. Their wingspan measures 1.75 to 2.3125 inches (4.5 to 6 centimeters).

As caterpillars, their prime host plant is green beans (genus Phaseolus), also known as French beans, runner beans, snap beans, and string beans. In fact, this larval stage typically melds itself with its host plant, literally rolling bean leaves around themselves for pupation (Latin: pupa, "doll"), the stage of transformation into a dazzling beauty. The message of the long-tailed skipper could very well be that green beans link to beauty!

In addition to Mexican sunflowers, long-tailed skippers are attracted to bougainvillea (genus Bougainvillea), butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), ironweed (genus Vernonia), and verbenas (genus Verbena).


Cloudless sulphur butterfly (Phoebis sennae)

Butterflies Alive, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, southwestern California
Butterflies Alive, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, southwestern California

Lemony confections of cloudless sulphur butterflies: Don't fence them in


Phoebis sennae is commonly known as cloudless sulphur butterfly.

A New World native, Phoebis sennae ranges from Argentina north to the southern United States, often sweeping up further north through the eastern and midwestern states.

Cloudless sulphurs are a lemony vision of soft yellow with irregular dark borders and outlined spots on forewings and hindwings. Their wingspan measures 2.25 to 3.125 inches (5.7 to 8 centimeters).

Like lemony suns in a clear sky, cloudless sulphurs pursue an unimpeded range, delighting in the open freedom of gardens, abandoned fields, parks, and shorelines.

In addition to Mexican sunflowers, cloudless sulphurs savor bougainvillea (genus Bougainvillea), butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), hibiscus (genus Hibiscus), and marigolds (genus Tagetes).


Mexican sunflower

Wailuku, northwestern Maui
Wailuku, northwestern Maui

Mexican sunflower: Bright, generous, egalitarian


Mexican sunflowers beguile the well-known stars of the butterfly world, such as monarchs and Eastern tiger swallowtails, as well as other, lesser known beauties. One and all are entranced by the Mexican sunflower's alluring flowers and mellifluous nectar. Moreover, Mexican sunflowers promote camaraderie in partaking its wares through its generously sized flowers which allow for several nectar imbibers at the same time. Not only are various butterfly species known to occupy the same flower but butterflies and hummingbirds share their floral treasure as well.

Certainly Mexican sunflowers, in full floral array, are never ignored, never lonely. On the contrary, Mexican sunflowers welcome a multitude of nectarivores daily. Also, their bright and sunny flowers almost seem to glow as their hues of orange to scarlet are vivified by the rainbow tints and shades of their pollinators. Indeed, the promise which a Mexican sunflower makes to every garden, and which it dutifully and easily fulfills, is that it is a floral beacon for faunal visitors and, as such, it transforms every garden into a visual paradise.


Closeup of disc florets, Mexican sunflower: nectared by fiery skipper butterflies (Hylephila phyleus)

"fiery skipper butterfly on Mexican sunflower"
"fiery skipper butterfly on Mexican sunflower"



My special thanks to talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the internet.


Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia 'Torch'): keeping company with another butterfly favorite, Mexican Aster (Cosmos bipinnatus).

Allied Arts Guild, Bay Area, northern California
Allied Arts Guild, Bay Area, northern California

Sources Consulted


American Horticultural Society. A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1996.

Christman, Steve. "Tithonia rotundifolia." Floridata > Plant Profile List. Last updated 09/03/06. LC:  Jack Scheper. Web.

Available at:

"Cloudless Sulphur Phoebis sennae (Linnaeus, 1758)."  Butterflies and Moths of North America > Species. Butterfly and Moth Information Network: Kelly Lotts and Thomas Naberhaus. Web.

  • Available at:

"Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Papilio glaucus Linnaeus, 1758."  Butterflies and Moths of North America > Species. Butterfly and Moth Information Network: Kelly Lotts and Thomas Naberhaus. Web.

  • Available at:

Flora: A Gardener's Encyclopedia. Volume II: L-Z. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2003.

"Juniper Hairstreak Callophrys gryneus (Hübner, [1819])."  Butterflies and Moths of North America > Species. Butterfly and Moth Information Network: Kelly Lotts and Thomas Naberhaus. Web.

  • Available at:

"Long-tailed Skipper Urbanus proteus (Linnaeus, 1758)."  Butterflies and Moths of North America > Species. Butterfly and Moth Information Network: Kelly Lotts and Thomas Naberhaus. Web.

  • Available at:

"Monarch Danaus plexippus (Linnaeus, 1758)." Butterflies and Moths of North America > Species. Butterfly and Moth Information Network: Kelly Lotts and Thomas Naberhaus. Web.

  • Available at:

Ortho's All About Attracting Hummingbirds and Butterflies. Des Moines, IA: Meredith Books, 2001.

"Painted Lady Vanessa cardui (Linnaeus, 1758)."  Butterflies and Moths of North America > Species. Butterfly and Moth Information Network: Kelly Lotts and Thomas Naberhaus. Web.

  • Available at:

"Queen Danaus gilippus (Cramer, 1776)."  Butterflies and Moths of North America > Species. Butterfly and Moth Information Network: Kelly Lotts and Thomas Naberhaus. Web.

  • Available at:

Roth, Sally. Attracting Butterflies & Hummingbirds to Your Backyard. Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2001.


flowering Mexican sunflower: Allied Arts Guild, Menlo Park, San Francisco Bay Area of northern California

site of Rancho de las Pulgas (“Ranch of the Fleas"), 18th century land grant to José Darío Argüello (1753–1828), founder of Los Angeles
Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) 'Torch':  flowering
Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) 'Torch': flowering
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

Silver button earrings, 'Taxco Sunflowers': handmade, with traditional cultural and artisan crafting, by Alon Diller ~ .950 legendary Mexican silver mined in Taxco ~

Fair Trade Product by NOVICA; in association with National Geographic, NOVICA searches the world to work directly with the finest artisan designers.
Mexican sunflower-themed jewelry

Dos Mujeres by Simon Silva

Dos Mujeres

Las Comadres by Simon Silva

Las Comadres

Me and my purrfectly purrfect Maine coon kittycat, Augusta "Gusty" Sunshine

Gusty and I thank you for reading this article and hope that our product selection interests you; Gusty Gus receives favorite treats from my commissions.
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 09/30/2021, DerdriuMarriner
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DerdriuMarriner on 11/13/2013

WriterArtist, Me, too, I also love the contrast on butterflies' wings. Mexican sunflowers are greatly appreciated by butterflies.
A "feast for the eyes": a great description of butterflies feasting on blooms!

WriterArtist on 11/13/2013

Adore these beautiful butterflies feasting on the blooms. They are feast for the eyes. I love the contrast on the wings of the butterflies, nature at it's best.

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