Helenium (Helenium autumnale)—commonly known as sneezeweed—is native to the United States and southern Canada, 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, though, expanding the varieties to include every conceivable shade of gold, orange, red, and brown. The blooms of helenium attract butterflies in late summer and fall.
The plants are characterized by lance-shaped foliage with stiff, upright stems. Some taller cultivars need staking. Planted in early spring, helenium plants grow quickly to a mature size of 2 to 5 feet tall and spread to 24 inches wide.
|Common Name||Sneezeweed, Helen's Flower|
|Botanical Name||Helenium autumnale|
|Plant Type||Perennial flower|
|Mature Size||2–5 feet tall|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type||Moist, well-draining|
|Soil pH||5.5 to 7.0|
|Bloom Time||Late summer, Fall|
|Flower Color||Yellow, gold, orange, coppery brown, red|
|Hardiness Zones||3–8 (USDA)|
|Native Area||North America and southern Canada|
The simple charm of helenium flowers suits cottage gardens and wildflower gardens. Pair helenium plants with other moisture-loving ornamentals that peak late in the season like beautyberry or hibiscus. Plant helenium plants in groups of three or five for the best effect.
Deer seldom browse helenium plants, making them a natural choice for meadows, prairies, and other naturalized areas that must accommodate wildlife.
Helenium flowers will get leggy if they don’t receive at least six hours of sun each day, but they will accept some afternoon shade, especially if the planting area is on the dry side.
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. Consider a rain garden site where moisture naturally collects, such as a low-lying area or beneath a downspout. Well-draining soil is best, but heleniums are clay tolerant.
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 three-inch layer of organic mulch will conserve moisture and maintain the acidic soil pH heleniums like.
Temperature and Humidity
Helenium plants tolerate humidity and hot summers, but proper spacing is important to prevent fungal diseases like mildew and rust where humidity is high.
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, but pinching heleniums back in the spring encourages shorter, stronger, sturdy plants and branching.
Types of Helenium
For such a seemingly simple and underused perennial, the number of helenium cultivars is surprising. Variations in flower form, height, and color allow a 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; downturned 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
Deadhead spent flowers to encourage subsequent blooming.
After blooming, cut the flower stalks down to the foliage. Divide plants in the spring or fall every three to five years to keep plants vigorous.
Helenium is easily grown from seed but can also be propagated through cuttings. Here's how:
What You’ll Need: Healthy plant, scissors, plastic bag, soilless potting mix, containers, rooting hormone (optional)
Where to Cut: Cut with scissors just below a node on a soft, green stem (cutting should be about 4 to 6 inches long).
Maintaining the Cutting: Remove the bottom few leaves, dip the stem in water then in rooting hormone (if desired), and slide stem about 2 inches into a container of potting mix. Keep warm and moist but not soggy.
When to Plant the Cutting: In 3 weeks, transplant the cutting into another pot or the ground.
How to Grow Helenium from Seed
If you choose seed starting to get a large colony of helenium growing quickly, sprinkle the seeds liberally on moist ground but don't cover the seeds because they require light to trigger germination. Plants will germinate in about two weeks at room temperature.
After the first frost, spread a thick layer (about 6 inches) of hay or mulch over your helenium bed. In the spring, as soon as the frost danger has passed, remove the insulating layer.
How to Get Helenium to Bloom
With adequate moisture and sunlight, heleniums are enthusiastic bloomers in the late summer. Their flowering can be encouraged to continue into fall by deadheading.
Common Problems With Helenium
What are similar alternatives to helenium?
Coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) are also similar to helenium in that their petals face outward from a central cone in a ray shape, but coneflowers are early summer bloomers. Helenium is a member of the Asteraceae family, which includes many similar-looking daisy-like flowers such as coneflowers, cosmos, blanket flowers, and sunflowers.
How long can helenium live?
While they can live longer, helenium plants tend to look ragged and unhealthy after about three years, so replanting at this time will keep your floral crop looking fresh.
What's the difference between helenium and coneflowers?
Helenium flowers closely resemble blanket flowers (Gaillardia grandiflora). Both plants feature daisy-like flowers in bright red and gold hues. Blanket flowers are very drought tolerant, though, and need only occasional irrigation.