As a native plant, helenium grows in moist, low-lying meadows or at the edges of damp woodlands. Horticulturists have taken the genus far beyond the simple yellow daisy-like flower of the native type, expanding the varieties to include every conceivable shade of gold, orange, red, and brown.
Allergy sufferers need not worry about planting the sneezeweed, as the name derives from a long-lost use of the root as a snuff ingredient. After inhaling, the resulting sneeze was supposed to drive evil spirits from the body! The only creatures apt to be affected by the blooms of helenium are butterflies, which seek out this late flowering plant.
Helenium autumnale, a member of the Asteraceae family
Sneezeweed; Swamp sunflower
3-5 feet tall, spreading to 24 inches
Late summer into early fall
- Lance-shaped foliage
- Petals may face outward from the center cone in a ray shape, or may droop downward.
- In some varieties the cone is larger and more prominent than the petals
- Stiff, upright stems rarely need staking.
- Deer avoid helenium plants and flowers
- Plants are easy to grow from seed, but gardeners may want to start with named hybrid varieties only available as plants.
- Helenium plants like their soil on the acidic side, with an ideal pH range of 5.5 to 7.0.
- Place heleniums where they will enjoy moist conditions, but not in a boggy site. Well-draining soil is best.
- Plants enjoy a rain garden site where moisture naturally collects, such as a low-lying area or beneath a downspout.
- Helenium flowers will get leggy if they don’t receive at least six hours of sun each day, but they will tolerate some afternoon shade.
- Pinching heleniums back in the spring encourages branching.
- Although helenium flowers resemble coneflowers and black-eyed Susan flowers, they do not share the drought tolerance of these look-alikes. In fact, heleniums like moderate to heavy moisture.
- A 3-inch layer of organic mulch will conserve moisture and maintain the acidic soil pH heleniums like.
- Heleniums aren’t heavy feeders, and one application of a balanced flower fertilizer in the spring is enough in fertile soils. Excessive fertilizer causes lanky growth.
- After blooming, cut the flower stalks down to the foliage.
- Divide plants in the spring or fall every three years to keep plants vigorous.
The simple form of helenium flowers suits cottage gardens and wildflower gardens. Pair helenium plants with other late bloomers, such as asters or sedum. Plant helenium plants in groups of three or five for the best effect.
Heleniums make excellent, long-lasting cut flowers.
For such a seemingly simple and underused perennial, the number of varieties is stunning. Variations in flower form, height, and color allow the gardener to devote an entire plot to growing helenium, if he wishes. Here are a few of the most interesting selections for your garden:
- Adios: Purplish-brown prominent cones; down turned petals
- Beatrice: Yellow petals more upward than most varieties; yellow and brown cone
- Butterpat: Pure yellow flowers from petals to cone
- El Dorado: A large brown cone flanked by a petticoat of lemon-yellow petals
- Red-Haired Katy: Petal color seems to shift from crimson to copper depending on the light
- Waldtraut: Long blooming time; orange petals flecked with gold