Tithonia : The Mexican Sunflower

This Post is not about the sunflower you might typically think of.

The flower I know as a sunflower is of the Helianthus (1) species. This plant (H.annuus) is also a Mexican plant and although it has been posited that this plant was introduced into México by the Spanish (Heiser 1998) (2), there is evidence (Lentz etal 2008) that this plant arose in the southwestern United States during the Cretaceous period (3) and evidence supplied by coprolites (4) shows that Mexicans (although they weren’t called that at the time) were consuming this plant circa 2600 cal B.C (5).

  1. modern Latin, from Greek hēlios ‘sun’ + anthos ‘flower’.
  2. Heiser concludes that the Helianthus sunflower entered (what is now) the south eastern United States (of America) by way of Peru (?) via the expeditions of Hernando de Soto (1539–1543). Hernando de Soto was a Spanish explorer and conquistador who was involved in expeditions in Nicaragua and the Yucatan Peninsula. He played a role in Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of the Inca Empire in Peru, but is best known for leading the first European expedition deep into the territory of the modern-day United States (through Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and most likely Arkansas)
  3. approx 50 Million years ago
  4. A coprolite (also known as a coprolith) is fossilized faeces; from the Greek words κόπρος (kopros “dung”) and λίθος (lithos “stone”). Coprolites are classified as trace fossils as opposed to body fossils, as they give evidence for the animal’s behaviour (in this case, diet) rather than morphology. Morphology is the study of the form and structure of organisms and their specific structural features. This includes aspects of the outward appearance, i.e. external morphology, as well as the form and structure of the internal parts like bones and organs. Coprolites were first described by William Buckland in 1829.
  5. The scientific term “cal BP” is an abbreviation for “calibrated years before the present” or “calendar years before the present” and that is a notation which signifies that the raw radiocarbon date cited has been corrected using current methodologies.

Heiser (2008) spends time refuting Lentz’ paper by saying that this plant “was carried from North America to Europe, not from North America to Mexico”. Which kind of backs up Lentz (etal 2008) by locating the source of the Helianthus species in “North” America, which, if we look at the map below, was México at the time of the Spanish arrival.

This map shows the state of Mexican land territory 275 years after Cortez first landed (in the area now known as Tabasco) and, as you can see, most of North America is Mexico.

So. Did this plant (Helianthus sp sunflower) arise in Mexico?

Lets not get too involved with this plant though.

The sunflower I’m looking at today is a Tithonia.

The genus Tithonia comprises about 20 species with a centre of distribution in Mexico and Central America (Morales, 2000). Two species in particular (and todays focus), T. diversifolia and T. rotundifolia, are widely cultivated as ornamentals and have escaped to become invasive weeds in many tropical and subtropical areas around the world (Morales, 2000) (Davidse etal 2018).

Tithonia diversifolia (Hemsley) A. Gray

Synonyms : Helianthus quinquelobus Sesse & Moc.; Mirasolia diversifolia Hemsl.

Common Names : Amargoso, durazno, mirasol, tanchiche. Chiapas: cha’quil, tanchiche’; Oaxaca: nataamx, notaamtsy (mixe); Tabasco: tanchich;. Veracruz: tamchichi, tamchich; Yucatán: ajo suum, chak su’um, ka’anal su’um, noj suum, suum ak; San Luis Potosí: maan huitz (tenek).

This plant is native to Mexico and Central America. It has been widely introduced throughout tropical and subtropical regions of the world and it can now be found cultivated and naturalized across South America, the West Indies, Africa, Asia, Australia and on many islands across the Pacific and Indian Ocean.

T.diversifolia is regarded as an environmental weed in Queensland and New South Wales (where, oddly enough, it is called Japanese sunflower). It is a prolific seed producer with small seeds that can be easily dispersed by wind, water and the movement of people, livestock and vehicles, facilitating (sometimes rapid) expansion into new areas. With this plant there is also the risk of unintentional introductions as its seeds can be a contaminant in important crop or ornamental seeds (1). Once established, T. diversifolia quickly forms dense stands with the potential to outcompete native vegetation and thus prevent the growth of native plant species. Allelopathic activity has also been reported for this species (2).

  1. this plant is a problem weed in Africa and it is believed it arrived there as a contaminant seed in shipments of Zea mays (corn) seed (Akobundu 1987). It has also become a harmful invasive plant in tropical and subtropical regions in South China (Yang etal 2012).
  2. See Post Medical/Botanical Term : Allelopathy for a little more on this term.

Medicinal Use

Pérez (etal 2015) notes the medicinal use of this herb in Xalapa (Veracruz, México). The stems and leaves are used to treat wounds and pain.

For wounds a decoction was made by boiling some branches/stems (ramas/tallos) with branches of hierba cancerina and golondrina; you then  clean the wound with the preparation. For addressing pain, make a poultice of crushed fresh leaves and apply to the painful area. I can assume that this can be used on open wounds as the decoction is also safe to use on open wounds. This also reflects its use in Cuba where the leaves are macerated in alcohol and applied as a poultice for muscular pain (dolores musculares).

An infusion of the leaves is used to alleviate vomiting via agua de tiempo (1).

  1. Tambien la coccion de las hojas en agua se usa contra vomito como agua de tiempo. Agua de tiempo often translates directly as “weather water” or “water of time”

Agua de tiempo

It can primarily refers to two things:

1. The first is simply the consumption of plain water at “room temperature”

2. the second is the consumption of a “medical tea” (infusion) at lukewarm or room temperature. This would be drunk throughout the day instead of water.

UNAM goes into more detail into this plant in their monograph

In the coastal states of Chiapas, Guerrero, and Veracruz this plant is frequently used to cure pimples, sores, and wounds . It is also used for other skin conditions, such as scabies, pimples, blackheads and to alleviate itching. To cure pimples, sores or wounds, the affected area is washed (with an infusion or the stronger decoction) or the crushed leaves are used as a poultice. In addition, it is reported that it works as an antiseptic.

The infusion of the leaves in water is the most common form of use

This infusion is used to treat respiratory diseases such as coughing, asthma and bronchitis .

To treat vomiting it (the infusion) is drunk like agua de tiempo; this is also used for empacho (1) i.e. to soothe stomach pain and stop diarrhoea. This same infusion is also used to relieve headaches and as a treatment for malaria.

  1. Empacho is a digestive (or series of) condition/s which is not readily accepted by mainstream medicine. Curandero/as treat this condition. See Post Empacho for greater detail on this condition.

It is also used to treat blows, fever , cramps and swelling . It can be used in baths when there is pain in the body or there are bruises or contusions. Use the infusion internally at the same time.

de Souza (etal 2020) elaborates somewhat on the medicinal uses of T.diversifolia (in Brazil)

Actions :

(traditional usage) anti-thermal, antimicrobial, antimalarial, antidiabetic, antihepatic

(in vivo / in vitro studies) anti-inflammatory, antifungal (C.albicans, C.tropicalis, C.parapsilosis, C.krusei), anti-tumor, antileishmanial, anti-trypanosomal (a parasite), antiparasitic

Traditional uses include,

  • a paste used as a topical administration (via poultice) to treat wounds
  • oral administration of a root extract for treatment of malaria
  • oral administration of a dried leaf extract for the treatment of diabetes (mellitus)

Puia (etal 2022) also notes a little regarding the actions of this herb (in relation to studies done on this plant in Ayurvedic medicine) (1). The toxicity of this plant is also mentioned as having an LD 50 estimated to be greater than 1000mg/kg (in rats )(2) AQL (3). UNAM in their Medicina Tradicional Mexicana list that a Toxicological evaluation of an ethanolic extract (95%) was carried out in mice, administered daily orally for 5 days, and no pathological effects were observed.

Actions noted by Puia (etal 2022) are listed as being antibacterial (AQL), antioxidant (ME), anti-inflammatory (AQL), antinociceptive (AQL), antidiarrheal (AQL), antimalarial (ME) maximum tolerated dose 1.0 mL/gm, anti-hyperglycaemic (AQL), chemopreventative (EA), antihelminthic.

  1. Ayurveda or Ayurvedic medicine is a system of traditional medicine from India. Treatment options are varied and can include yoga, acupuncture, herbal medicine, massage therapy and dietary changes.
  2. 1000mg/kg is considered to be “moderate toxicity”. It is more toxic than acetaminophen (Paracetamol at 1,944mg/kg) and (much) less toxic than aspirin (200mg/kg)
  3. AQL = aqueous leaf extract : ME = methanol extract : EA = ethyl acetate extract

Cancerina. Which one should I use?

One of the herbs mentioned as an admixture (along with golondrina) is cancerina. The specificity of this herb (cancerina) was not noted in the monograph. The images above show one of the issues with herbal medicine and that is the use of Common Names. These names differ (sometimes even within the same community) and it is entirely possible that misidentifications can be made and potentially dangerous herbs (or dosages) may occur. This is why, whenever possible, I prefer to rely on the Linnaean binomial nomenclature (or scientific name) of a plant. In this way we can all be sure of what we speak. For some of the issues arising with the use of Common names see my Post A Note on Deer Weed : The Danger of Common Names

Golondrina. This one is easier to identify. It is (usually) noted as being Euphorbia prostata.

There are other Euphorbias listed as being this plant. E.hirta and E.maculata are also identified as being hierba de la golondrina. E.misera (under the name Golondrina) is used by the Seri and Papago (Tohono Oʼodham) peoples (1). A preparation of the root (specific preparation not noted) is used to treat stomach-ache (Moreno Salazar etal 2008).

  1. both are desert peoples from the northern Sonora region of Mexico.

This species (Euphorbiaceae) can be fairly toxic so care is advised when using it and its use should be directed by someone trained in its use. Its use is not advised during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
The sap of the plant is toxic and there are issues with some varieties looking similar to edible herbs (1). I once again reiterate If you are not 100% sure of a plants identity then DO NOT USE IT!. 100% sure is the equivalent of knowing the difference between milk and orange juice when you visit your refrigerador

  1. See Post Quelite : Verdolagas : Purslane for one such potentially dangerous misidentification.

Alonso-Castro (etal 2017) notes some uses of other Euphorbs known as golondrina in the Americas. The medicinal use of the plant is listed as are the symptoms of toxicity and the plant part that is used/causes the toxic reaction. (See Image 1 below). Several studies note the antibacterial nature of T.diversifolia. Gutierrez (etal 2013) notes a study on this plant and its antibacterial strength and that its efficacy against various bacteria (1) was equivalent to the antibiotics used as positive controls (2). See image 2 below.

  1. Escherichia coli, Bacillus subtilis, Proteus vulgaris and Staphylococcus aureus
  2. Ampicillin, Kanamycin, Penicillin and Gervosin

“Arnica” is a common name for this herb (and many others) in México and Brazil. It must be noted that this plant IS NOT the true arnica – Arnica montana. In Brazil arnica is a common name for many medicinal herbs from the Asteraceae family (1).

  1. See my Post The Pore Leaf in Brazil for more information on the Arnica cross over

Undiluted Arnica montana can cause irritation or damage to the skin, mouth, throat, and stomach, as well as vomiting, diarrhoea, rashes, shortness of breath, fast heartbeat, high blood pressure, damage to the heart and other organs, increased bleeding, coma, and death. Use under expert supervision.

Tithonia rotundifolia

Synonyms : Tagetes rotundifolia Miller; Helianthus speciosus Hook.; Tithonia speciosa (Hook.); Tithonia vilmoriniana Pamp.

Even though it is regularly list in papers alongside T.diversifolia there is not a lot of medicinal information about this one. It can be assumed that as it is listed in these studies it can, more or less, be used in the same situations (much as many umbelliferous herbs can be used for similar conditions). There is some information that it ca be used allelopathically to assist with the growing of beans (i.e. it is a good companion plant in this case). Mutiti (etal 2020) notes the plant can be used in land remediation practices to help draw excess levels of lead from the soil (1). I have not seen the same noted of T.divesifolia. This fact would lead me to be very cautious about wildcrafting this plant for medicinal use (particularly if you aren’t aware of the heavy meatal pollution of the soil it grows in)

  1. T. rotundifolia was able to accumulate up to 33% of the lead from the contaminated soils.

Phytochemicals in this plant have been (somewhat successfully) trialled for antimalarial activity (Ngarivhume etal 2021) and the same paper recommends that it also be trialled for its anticancer and antidiabetic activities.

Tithonia fruticosa.

This one is a bit of an outlier. Pennington (1963) notes that amongst the Tarahumara peoples of Chihuahua the flower petals of this plant are steeped in water and used as a treatment for coughs.

I have found no culinary recipes for these plants. If you know any then please let me know.


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