By Molly Day
All the Dirt on Gardening
The leaves of native sneezeweed (helenium autumnale) 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 the plant multiplies, taking over moist meadows and damp woodlands. Linnaeus named it “Helen’s flower” in a fanciful association with Helen of Troy’s tears, a connection that no one understands. Bittersweet and bitterweed are other common names for the 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 form clumps in damp but not wet soil. The species 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 causes sneezing, but that is not true. However, its leaves and stems are somewhat poisonous, so it should be planted away from 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 you are shopping for varieties, the ones whose leaves have sawtooth-edges are the most hardy because 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).
Another plant breeder and grower, Skagit Gardens, says its 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, although they will be covered by new leaf growth. They like sun and moist soil. Butterflies and bees will cover them whenever there are flowers.
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 them in mid-summer to reduce staking.)
Septemberfuchs has bright orange flowers on 5-foot stems.
Moerheim Beauty has 2- to 3-inch wide copper-red flowers on 3-foot stems.
Feursiegel grows to 5 feet tall. Its flowers are brown to red.
There are dozens of helenium varieties. 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 to propagate. Soft stem cuttings taken from spring shoots root very quickly. Divide helenium clumps every three years in the spring. More than 100 helenium varieties are available from the British grower Special Perennials (www.specialperennials.
Helenium seeds are available from most seed vendors. Whether planted from seeds or purchased plants, helenium will last in the garden for years.