Helenium is a native flowering perennial

June 30, 2021

When we think of movie stars, we think of glamour, riches and stunning good looks. But the very first movie star was none of these. In the five-second 1894 film, Fred Ott, an assistant to Thomas Edison, takes a pinch of snuff and sneezes. Actually, a sneeze may be film-worthy when you think how odd sneezing is. A sneeze pushes air out of your nose at 100 miles per hour. We don’t sneeze when sleeping because the nerves are also sleeping. Even plucking your eyebrows can make you sneeze, because you can irritate facial nerve endings, causing a sneezing reflex.

This brings us to one of the garden's often-overlooked flowers, the sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale). If you have allergies, you may wonder why on earth you would plant a flower that makes you sneeze. Fear not, sneezeweed got its name because the dried leaves were often an ingredient in snuff, and one of the purposes of snuff is to make you sneeze and supposedly cast out evil spirits.

So even gardeners with allergies can plant sneezeweed.

Because Helenium is a native flowering perennial, it is a good addition to pollinator gardens. The late-season flowers are an important food source for beneficial insects, and many butterflies rely on their nectar. The flowers are beautiful two-toned blooms that open in shades of orange, copper, yellow, magenta and deep mahogany-red. The center of the daisy-like flower is a sturdy cone. In fact, it is related to the coneflower, Echinacea. This is a perfect low-maintenance flower that is deer-resistant. It also makes a good choice for planting in pots.

Helenium plants are tall but relatively narrow, growing two to five feet high, yet just one to two feet wide. Like most flowers, they look best when planted in clumps. For bushier plants, just pinch back the tips of stems in spring or early summer.

Helenium plants are easy to grow from seed, although you may want to start with named hybrid varieties that are only available as plants. Some of the named varieties are Adios, which sports big purple-brown center cones and petals that hang down. The variety Beatrice has bright-yellow flowers with more upward-facing petals. Butterpat is solid yellow, and Red-Haired Katy has flowers that start out bright red, and seem to change to a terra cotta color when the light shifts.

If you want to plant seeds, they are available at many nurseries or by mail from seed companies such as Outside Pride ( or Swallowtail Gardens (

When planting sneezeweed seeds, bear in mind they need light to germinate, so press them into the prepared bed and do not cover the seeds with dirt. Seeds germinate in about two weeks. Sneezeweed prefers acidic soil that is between pH 5.5 and 7.0, although they seem to do well in almost any soil. They do best in full sun, otherwise they can get leggy and weak. It is hardy in USDA zones 3-8. They do like moist but not soggy soil, so put them where there is adequate moisture. Mulching will help keep the soil cool and moist.

Try to keep your plants spaced a foot apart or more so that air circulates freely. This will keep diseases such as mildew at bay.

As a native plant they grow perfectly well without additional fertilizer. In fact, too much fertilizer can lead to lots of leaves and few blossoms.

After the flowers fade in late autumn, cut the flower stalks back. You may want to divide plants every three to five years, although this isn't really necessary unless you want to move new plants to another part of the garden, or give them away as pollinator-friendly flowers. Dividing the plants is best done in early spring or in the fall.

Plant Helenium and you will enjoy easy-to-grow flowers right up until frost. You can even harvest the leaves and dry them to add to snuff. You will be providing food and shelter for beneficial pollinators. And that is nothing to sneeze at.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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