Heleniums - old and new, tall and short, yellows and reds

were added to snuff to make people sneeze in order to expel evil spirits and prevent hay fever.  (Bless you!) Another common name is Swamp Sunflower because they multiply and take over moist meadows and damp woodlands. Linnaeus named them Helen’s Flower in a fanciful association with Helen of Troy’s tears that no one understands. Bittersweet and Bitterweed are other common names for the same plant.

Overall, there are 40 Helenium species that are cold hardy in zones 3 to 8. Some are annuals and others are perennial herbs. All of them form clumps in damp but not wet soil. The species sizes range from 2 feet to 5 feet tall. Tall varieties may have to be staked at the end of the season unless they are pruned mid-summer.

Like their close relatives, asters and sunflowers, Helenium’s flowers are daisy-like rays of petals.  Heleniums bloom from late summer until frost with flower colors of yellow, orange, brown and reds. All varieties make good cut flowers and all are loved by butterflies and bees.

Some gardeners have the impression that Helenium is called Sneezeweed because it makes people sneeze to be around the plants but that is not true. The leaves and stems are somewhat poisonous, though, so they should be planted away curious children and pets. Rabbits avoid them for the same reason.

Medicinally the leaves have been used to treat headaches and the tea was used to treat intestinal worms, fever and tumors.

Wild Heleniums prefer damp roots but many garden selections tolerate a wide variety of soil conditions, even clay. The one condition Heleniums cannot tolerate is very dry soil. Prepare the planting bed by adding plenty of humus or compost  to hold moisture between watering or rain.

When shopping for varieties, the ones with sawtooth-edged leaves are the most hardy since they are related to the natives. The native Heleniums were improved considerably by plant breeders.

There is quite a bit of Helenium history and information at www.helenium.net in England.

Perennials (www.perennials.com) offers a dozen Helenium hybrids such as Bruno, Ruby Tuesday and Rubinzwerg (red flowers), Red and Gold plus Mariachi Fuego (orange and yellow), Tie Dye (yellow-pink-lavender), and Double Trouble (double yellow).

Helenium Short 'n Sassy
Skagit Gardens
  According to plant breeder and grower, Skagit Gardens, their latest Helenium release, Short ‘n Sassy, will be available this spring. It blooms earlier than most and flowers continue until a hard freeze.


Helenium Short ‘n Sassy is better branched than many varieties and remains short enough to need no staking. The faded flowers can be removed though they will be covered by new leaf growth. They  like sun and moist soil. The butterflies and bees will cover them whenever there are flowers.

Helenium Ruby Tuesday
Ruby Tuesday grows to 20 to 30 inches high and 12 to 15 inches wide with crimson or red-brown flowers. 

Bruno’s crimson flowers are 2-3 inches across on a 4-foot tall plant. (Prune mid-summer to reduce staking.)

Septemberfuchs has bright orange flowers on 5-foot tall stems.

Moerheim Beauty has 2-3-inch wide copper-red flowers on 3-foot stems.

Helenium Feursiegel
  Feursiegel grows to 5-feet tall. Its flowers are brown to red.

There are dozens of Heleniums to choose from. They are easy to grow and prefer to be under-fertilized. After the first flowering, cut the plants back by half for a second bloom.

Heleniums are also easy plants to propagate. Soft stem cuttings taken from spring shoots, root very quickly.  Divide Helenium clumps every three years in the spring. Over a hundred Helenium plant varieties are available from the British grower Special Perennials at www.specialperennials.com.

Helenium seeds are available from most seed vendors. Whether planted from seeds or purchased plants they will last in the garden for years.




Alan said…
Very interesting plants! They are not that common here, I think they probably like a drier climate than I can provide. Lovely pics!
Molly Day said…
Hi Adam - They are an American Native and I'm not sure how our weather compares to yours.
However the true native heleniums enjoy damp feet at the edge of a wooded area.
I checked out your blog though and you have TONS of gorgeous plants to enjoy there.

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