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growing Mexican hat from seed

Do the Mexican Hat Dance: Growing Ratibida Columnifera from Seed

What's hotter than a Scotch bonnet? A garden that explodes with the Mexican hat flower's fiery hues of yellow, rust, brown, and...Fuego!

Ratibida columnifera are among our favorite easy-to-grow, long-blooming ornamentals. They're perfect for neglected, unimproved areas on your property that you're not quite ready to call part of your "garden" without feeling like a liar. They don't need much water once they're established, and they require virtually no maintenance. As long as they have lots of sunshine and well-drained soil, these herbaceous perennials will rapidly grow and bloom from May until your first hard frost...and they'll return for encore presentations the following spring.

We tend to think that Mexican hat flowers look less like sombreros than they do graceful dancers twirling long, brightly-colored skirts while performing El Jarabe Tapatio, the traditional Mexican hat dance. (Which, by the way, is the National Dance of Mexico.) Multiple thin, bare stems tower above frothy basal clumps, topped by two-inch wide flowers that resemble echinacea—but with more droop in the petals, and larger, oblong central disks that can extend as much as two inches. Mexican hat flowers have only seven to ten petals, and these are shorter and more paddle-shaped than those of most other coneflowers. All types of coneflowers, including Mexican hat, are members of the aster and daisy family (Asteraceae).

Pro Tip: Do you have a neighbor who decorates his yard with old transmissions? Does he use a 1980s satellite dish as a birdbath for turkey vultures? Maybe he's just a jerk who complains that your garden's inviting dangerous, so-called Africanized honeybees into the neighborhood. Here's what you do: Scatter some Ratibida columnifera seeds on his property when he's not looking. At least some will grow without soil cultivation, just enough to make a statement. If you squint at the flower's profile, and if you've got at least an ounce of snark in your soul, you'll notice that the flower's profile bears a snicker-inducing (but somewhat subtle) resemblance to a one-fingered salute.

Mexican hat's sage-green leaves are almost feathery, being deeply lobed to the point at which they look like they're branching. They're also quite pungent, whether or not you crush them. It's not an unpleasant odor; rabbits would disagree, but deer will chomp the flowers if they can avoid the leaves.

Grow them en masse for the best effect, since they don't have an overabundance of foliage. You can use that to your advantage by using them as border plants against a backdrop of denser species. Mix them with ox-eye daisies, or for a full-on sunshine overload, intersperse them with gloriosa daisies and blanket flowers.

If that's too much gold n' yellow for you—and remember, Mexican hat can have rich brown tones, too—plant them with purple hues. We like pairing them with anise hyssop; your local pollinators will appreciate the buffet. You can try growing them with purple coneflowers, though they might be overshadowed by the slightly larger, denser plant. If you grow them together, be sure to offset them a bit and keep your R. columnifera in the foreground.

Both the pollen and nectar from Mexican hat flowers attract a huge variety of beneficial insects, and their ripening seeds bring small birds to your garden. Either leave the spent flowers to dry on the plant, or cut, invert and dry the heads in a well-ventilated, arid area. You can bundle them up and hang them near a bird feeder, or use the method we suggest in the next section.

Here's the TL; DR (or, for you non-millennials, "Cliff's Notes"):

  • USDA Hardiness Zones: Short-lived perennial in zones 3 through 9.
  • Sunlight Preferences: Prefers full sun, but will tolerate light afternoon shade.
  • Moisture Requirements: Drought resistant, but regular watering will produce the best blooms.
  • Soil Preferences: As long as it's well-draining, anything goes. Ideal pH is between 6.8 and 7.2, so you might need to add some lime to your beds.
  • Plant Height: 12" to 36"
  • Plant Width: 6" to 18"
  • Growth Habit: Clumping, upright.
  • Bloom Period: Late spring until the first frost.
  • Bloom Color: Yellow, orange, red, rust, brown...and any combination of each.

Mexican hat plants are resilient against insect and invertebrate pests, but in overly wet conditions, they might experience fungal problems at the soil surface. Err on the dry side once they've become established in order to prevent issues.

The long stems make them good cut flowers, though they're not that long-lasting. Be sure to put them in water immediately after cutting (as in, carry a bucket or vase with you) and, if the petals drop off sooner than you'd like, consider keeping the center cones on display in wildflower arrangements. As the colorful disk florets fade away and drop off, the white centers look striking above the wilting petals.

Native range, history, and medicinal uses

Don't confuse this plant with the Madagascan succulent Bryophyllum daigremontianum, which also goes by the same common name. Ratibida columnifera is originally from northern Mexico and the American Southwest, though it's found in the wild (and considered a native) in most of North America, including Canada. Most gardeners know it as Mexican hat, but its other names include:

  • Thimble flower
  • Upright prairie coneflower
  • Prairie coneflower
  • Columnar prairie coneflower
  • Long-headed coneflower

It thrives in areas near limestone deposits, and the Southwest is ideal for Mexican hat. In fact, you might find Ratibida columnifera growing near Mexican Hat, Utah, a remote but popular launching spot for paddlers exploring the San Juan River and ancient Pueblo Indian sites. Zuni cultures in Arizona and New Mexico reportedly made tea from the entire plant and drank it to ease stomach aches. (Keep that in mind the next time you have too many shots of Patron at your next garden party.) According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, if you pass out in a patch of poison ivy, or you find out the hard way that a rattlesnake took a siesta in your boot, bathing in infusions made from the leaves and stems helped to ease the pain.

Growing Mexican Hat from Seed

We recommend sowing these seeds directly outdoors as soon after your last spring frost as possible. You can start them indoors under lights 6 to 8 weeks ahead of your last predicted frost date, but transplanted Mexican hat doesn't thrive as well due to their fast-growing taproot. If you absolutely must start them indoors, be sure to germinate and transplant them in biodegradable pots to reduce root shock.

There's no absolute requirement to treat the seeds prior to planting, though a month of cold stratification in the fridge will give spring-sown seeds a boost. For this reason, you may opt to plant them in the fall.

To care for spring-sown (and indoor-started) plants, keep the soil moist until the seedlings have emerged and grown at least four true leaves. Since Mexican hat seeds require sunlight to germinate, prepare the soil by raking all organic debris and small rocks until you have a nice smooth surface. Then, gently press the seeds onto the surface, or scatter and—also gently—firm the soil with the flat side of a (garden) hoe. Water the area with your hose nozzle on the finest setting so as not to drive the seeds beneath the surface.

Here's the down and dirty on growing Mexican hat from seed:

  • Seed Treatment: None required; cold stratification recommended.
  • Seed Depth: Surface; no deeper than 1/8".
  • Seed Spacing: Plant or thin to 18".
  • Days to Germination: Between 7 and 21 days at a minimum of 65°F.

While you can fudge the spacing between individual Mexican hat plants down to about ten to twelve inches, they can dominate other less-aggressive neighboring species. And while R. columnifera doesn't raise any alarms as an invasive plant, it will easily naturalize in your garden...or your neighbor's. It's a short-lived perennial, only living for two or three seasons, so a little self-sowing won't hurt if you want to keep them growing in your yard.

Mexican hat seeds have a papery husk, so if you do scatter them, do it when there's no breeze to prevent them from sailing away. If you want to collect your own seeds after the plants have faded away and their center "cones" have dried, just roll them between your palms to harvest the seeds and store them in a cool, dry place.

Plan (and Plant) Your Garden with Seed Needs

As much as we love ornamentals that have been refined and cultivated by human selection over hundreds of years, we're always astonished by the raw beauty of North American native wildflowers. Mexican hat plants, with their brilliant earth tones and unusual shape, score high on our list. Then again, it's nearly impossible to choose favorites, which is why we're always adding new "must-haves" to our expanding collection of vegetable, herb, and ornamental plants.

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