Helenium, Helenium autumnale

A hybrid helenium blooming in a garden in summer.

The genus Helenium in the daisy family (Asteraceae) includes more than 40 species of annuals and perennials from the Americas. The types most commonly used as garden plants are hybrids created with H. autumnale as a primary parent. With common names of Helen’s flower, sneezeweed (somewhat misleading since they do not cause allergies, but got that name from the historic use of crushed dried leaves and flowerheads in snuff intended to cause sneezing that was supposed to drive evil spirits from the body) or just plain helenium, H. autumnale is a highly variable perennial native to much of the US and southern Canada hardy in USDA zones 3–8. The wild forms with primarily yellow flowers are likely to appeal mainly to native-plant enthusiasts, while the more refined hybrids are well suited to most ornamental gardens. As with many American wildflowers and grasses, Europeans, especially in Germany and the Netherlands, have been instrumental in developing helenium into more vigorous plants with better form, a longer bloom period and a wider palette of more vivid colors in autumn shades of gold, orange, red, and brown. Many modern hybrids include some orange sneezeweed (H. hoopesii, a western species that blooms in midsummer), so that many start blooming earlier than older types and continue until fall.

These erect, clump-forming herbaceous perennials grow 2-5 feet tall from a crown of resting shoots with shallow, fibrous roots. The alternate, medium green lanceolate to elliptic-oblong leaves to 6 inches long have sparsely toothed to almost entire margins. The base of the leaves often clasp the stems. The rigid, angular, winged, slightly hairy stems branch near the top.

Helenium grows in clumps from a crown (L, in early spring) with lanceolate leaves with sparsely toothed to almost entire margins (R).

 

Helenium blooms in dense clusters.

Heleniums generally produce abundant velvet-textured flowers in dense terminal clusters over a long period of time. The exact time varies by cultivar, with some blooming as early as June, but most flowering in late summer to autumn (sometimes to first frost). The 1-2 inch wide flowers have the typical composite or daisy pattern, with ray florets surrounding the central disk flowers. In most heleniums the 11-21 ray flowers are relatively short and wedge-shaped with notched ends forming three lobes at the tip. They may be held in a flat plane or droop downwards. The prominent center is subglobose – forming a dome-like, round knob – so the overall effect of the flower heads is sculptural and elegant. The ray flowers range in color from pale or bright yellow to gold, warm orange, coppery brown and deep red, and sometimes with two or more colors blended together for a washed or stippled effect, or striped or with bands of color. Consistent deadheading promotes more flowers; large groups of plants can be sheared. The flowers are frequently visited by butterflies, bees and other insects and are excellent for cutting. The tiny disk florets are eventually replaced by seeds (achenes that lack tufts of hair) that are often dispersed by water.

The flowers open from a dome-shaped bud (L) with short ray florets surrounding the central disk (LC) with the disk flowers opening from the bottom up (RC) and each wedge-shaped ray flower having three lobes at the end (R).

Orange helenium combines with other perennials in a sunny garden.

These late-season bloomers can be used in beds, cottage gardens, prairies, meadows, wild gardens, and naturalized areas especially when planted in drifts or masses. Because they like moist soil they can be used in rain gardens. They combine well in informal perennial or mixed beds and borders with ornamental grasses, anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), beebalm (Monarda spp.), daylilies, fall-blooming asters, goldenrods (Solidago spp.), leadwort (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides), liatris, purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), rudbeckias, and many other perennials. Shorter cultivars would work well with bronze carex (most are not hardy in our area, however) and mix nicely with the airy purple-flowerd Verbena bonariensis (not hardy, but self-seeds readily).

Helenium does best in full sun.

Helenium does best in full sun in rich, moist soil, although many of the hybrids are more tolerant of relatively drier soil. Plants require watering during dry periods and may benefit from fertilization in early spring when growth resumes. Avoid overly rich soils or excessive fertilization which will promote rampant foliar growth and fewer flowers. Taller types may need to be staked to prevent flopping when they begin to bloom (or use pea staking, or tie plants grown in drifts together with string). Pinching back new growth in late spring will produce shorter, sturdier plants, with more floriferous bloom but flowering will be delayed. Taller types often end up with ragged foliage before they bloom (leaf loss often results when plants dry out too much), so may need to be disguised behind other plants. Cut back the stems after flowering or in early spring before growth resumes.

The species H. autumnale is easily grown from seed, but hybrids are propagated from division or cuttings.

Clumps do not need frequent division, but spindly plants should be divided and replanted. These plants have few pest problems but powdery mildew and leaf spots can affect the foliage. They are not favored by deer or rabbits because the bitter foliage is toxic if ingested in large quantities, and can cause skin irritation in susceptible people.

The species are easily grown from seed, but hybrid heleniums are propagated from divisions or tip cuttings made in early spring just as they start into growth. Dig clumps every 3-5 years, discarding the old central stalk and separating groups or individual rosettes, to keep the plants vigorous and blooming well.

Just a few of the numerous cultivars and hybrids available offering a range of flower form, height, and color include:

  • ‘The Bishop’ – is a compact selection (28 inches tall) of the west coast species H. bigelovii with deep yellow ray flowers surrounding a black-brown center. It is listed as much less hardy than other heleniums, blooming in the middle of the season.
  • ‘Bruno’ – is a midseason bloomer with dark mahogany red-brown flowers on 3 to 3½ foot tall plants.
  • ‘Butterpat’ – has bright yellow ray flowers and a prominent yellow-green disk on plants 4 feet tall or taller. It received the Royal Horticulture Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 2001.
  • ‘Double Trouble’

    ‘Double Trouble’ (PP18206) – has double, sterile flowers that are produced over a long period from midsummer through early fall. The pure bright yellow frilly ray flowers surround a gold disk.

  • ‘El Dorado’ – is an early and long-flowering cultivar released in 2005 featuring mostly yellow flowers with slight streaks of red down the petals on 3 foot tall plants.
  • ‘Feuersiegel’ (“fiery lightning bolt”) – is one of German nurseryman Karl Foerster’s very free-flowering releases (1959) with deep yellow flowers marked with forked streaks of red radiating from the light brown disk (the amount of red varies with temperature and light levels, so may appear as red edged with yellow) on 4 foot tall plants. This late-blooming cultivar received the Royal Horticulture Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 2001.
  • ‘Goldrausch’ (“gold rush”) – another Foerster cultivar with golden yellow flowers marked with brown and a green-brown disk on tall plants (4-5 feet).
  • ‘Hot Lava’ – is a newer, very floriferous variety from the Netherlands with long-lasting orangey red flowers with upturned petals around disks that begin yellow and change to maroon when mature on 2½ foot tall plants. (Very similar to “Ruby Charm”)
  • ‘Mardi Gras’

    ‘Mardi Gras’ – is a patented variety with numerous flowers with ray petals in shades of rich orange washed with yellow and red on 2-3 foot tall stiff-stemmed plants. Plants can begin blooming as early as late June into October. Zones 4-8.

  • Mariachi™ Salsa – is a compact and floriferous variety with reddish-orange ray flowers around a brown cone from midsummer through fall on 20 inch tall plants. Mariachi™ Siesta has red-purple ray flowers.
  • ‘Moerheim Beauty’ – is one of the most well-known and popular varieties, developed by Dutch breeder Bonne Ruys in the 1930s. This early bloomer has reddish bronze flowers in a range of shades, with some flecked with gold or copper, maturing to russet, around a dark center on 3½-4 foot tall plants which often need support.

    ‘Moorheim Beauty’

    If deadheaded thoroughly it will reflower later in the season. It received the Royal Horticulture Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 2001.

  • ‘Potter’s Wheel’ – is a late season flowering Dutch hybrid with deep cherry red flowers with a narrow gold edge surrounding a maroon center on 4 foot tall plants.
  • ‘Pumilum Magnificum’ – is an English variety that has been grown in gardens since the late 1890’s with early deep, pure yellow flowers on 2 foot tall plants (“pumilum” means dwarf).
  • ‘Ring of Fire’ – is a semi-double Dutch introduction with two layers of orange and yellow petals.
  • ‘Rubinzwerg’ (“ruby dwarf”) – is a poplar cultivar released by Peter and Bärbel Zur Linden in 1989 with red petals that have a hint of yellow near the cone, flowering from mid-summer to fall. The bushy plants are a little over 2 feet tall. It received the Royal Horticulture Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 2001.
  • ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ – is a long-flowering hybrid introduced by an Englishman named after the Dutchman in whose nursery it was discovered, that starts blooming in mid-summer and continues until frost. Flower color changes from reddish-orange in hot weather to yellow in cool weather and each orange flower is different from the next. It received the Royal Horticulture Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 2001.
  • ‘Short ‘n’ Sassy’

    ‘Short ‘n’ Sassy’ – is a compact cultivar that grows only 20 inches tall and wide, with golden-orange ray flowers around the dark cone in summer and fall. Zones 4-8.

  • ‘Waltraut’ (a girl’s name, the female form of Walther) – is an older German variety (introduced by Gustav Deutschmann in 1947) with orange petals flecked with gold that deepen in intensity of orange as they mature. It begins blooming from early July on 2½ foot tall plants and received the Royal Horticulture Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 2001.

Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison


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57 comments

  1. I am very interested in the taller versions of this flower as I live in the far north and have deer and rabbits as frequent visitors. We have very sandy soil, but also have a pond and area that stays moist, which is where I would like to plant it.

  2. I was previously unfamiliar with this plant and was looking for additions to the naturalized area of my yard. It’s desirable to me because of the late blooming aspect and the wide variety of colors. The fact that it is not attractive to deer and rabbits is a bonus. It will be an addition to my garden next year.

  3. I would not think these like moist soil. I would like to try Short n Sassy but am a bit reluctant due to the fact they can cause skin irrigation. Red for MG hours.

  4. I find it interesting the Helenium needs moist soil since it is in the daisy family. Daisies are pretty drought tolerant so I figured the Helenium would be as well. I think they are lovely and a lovely punch of color to any garden. I will have to get some.

  5. I had no idea there were so many varieties of Helenium. I intend to look for Hot Lava and Mardi Gras, as I am more familiar with Moerheim Beauty. I see that it it would pair well with other native prairie plants like Leadwork, and Anise Hyssop, purple coneflowers and more. In planning a prairie garden for next year (2019), this article was extremely helpful in learning about another possible plant for my bed.

  6. Awesome color options available! I have only grown the orange/yellow variety. Would like to try the red-bugandy colored ones. Very pretty.

  7. Love the colors of these flowers. ‘Short n Sassy’ is definitely on my list to plant next year. Although, Mariachi™ Siesta with its red-purple ray flowers is also in the running.

  8. Amazing how many color combinations and heights that are available. Great option to add to my flower beds.

  9. I will have to remember to remove the dead heads to continue blooming thru the summer.

  10. Glad to hear there are some late season bloomers in this group. And that our deer/rabbits won’t eat them. Because we can receive strong westerly winds I may try a shorter version vs. the taller ones. Another great late season pollinator plant. I love the color orange.

  11. I had not heard of these before. I will definitely find a place in my garden to plant one.

  12. Bummed that this won’t work in my home garden…too much shade. But definitely will keep it in mind for the Wind Point Lighthouse. The beds there are full sun, and we’re always looking for plants that bloom later in the season. It’s also great that they are deer/rabbit resistant. I love all the different colors…after seeing so much pink and purple in the summer, it’s nice to see some orange and red in the fall.

  13. Beautiful! I have a yellow variety and didn’t know there were so many. Will definitely need to get some orange ones in my garden.

  14. I will be giving this a try as something else the deer don’t like. Every thing else I plant is just “deer salad”!

  15. I never realized all the cultivars of Helenuim. I am definitely going to search for the more unusual
    and beautiful cultivars shown in this article. I’m always looking for deer resistant plants too.

  16. I acquired an Helenium plant a few years ago when I needed late Summer/early Fall color in one of my perennial beds. I can attest that the deer don’t eat it. I had not done any recent reading about these plants so I didn’t realize that there were so many different cultivars.

  17. Mardi Gras sounds like a good choice to add to my garden for fall color. Bee loving plants are a plus.

  18. I see there are so many more varieties than just the ones I started last year!
    The rains have been cooperative to keep these plants happy this year!

  19. After reading this article I am hoping I have enough sun to raise helenium at the woodland edge. Moist conditions and PLENTY of deer and rabbit make me want to try it next spring.

  20. I bought the perennial because it stated it was a native…It blooms for weeks in the fall. I have since transferred many of these to our local Ironwood Pocket Park that several of us master gardeners take care of.

  21. Helenium is a spectacular flower that attracts lots of bees and butterflies. Did not realize that there are so many different varieties. Can hardly wait to add more.

  22. I’ve been looking for plants to add to my yard to add flowers in the Spring and Fall that the pollinators will like. Will be looking for this one to add to my purple cone flowers and monardas.

  23. I have tried to grow helenium in the past without success. I love the deep red colors of the Moerheim Beauty. I extensively updated one of my flower beds in the spring and planted two Moerheim Beauties. I finally have succeeded growing these beauties. I put them in rich soil that had been amended in the fall of 2017. I hope to get a nice big display of them over the coming years.

  24. ‘Short ‘n Sassy’ would be a good choice for me as I seem to be staking a lot of plants. Good to know rabbits are not interested.

  25. Good to know the deer and rabbits avoid this. Always looking for those types of flowers. I like that there is also a wide variety colors and sizes. And also that the “sneezeweed” should not affect allergies. WIll be looking to add these to the mix next year.

  26. I’ve heard about Heleniums before but never took the time to read about them. The Mardi Gras variety caught my eye and I look forward to adding it to our perennial garden!

  27. I think I will try these in my garden. Not sure how well they’ll do as we have sandy soil. I’m especially interested in the yellow varieties.

  28. I wasn’t sure about this plant at first when I saw the name sneezeweed. I thought it may irritate my allergies. Glad it won’t! After reading this article I am glad I bought one several years ago. I posted pictures of this plant on my facebook page and it got several likes earlier this summer. Beautiful plant. Mine is shades of orange.

  29. I have some of the companion plants mentioned in the article, so I am anxious to add Heleniums to my garden. I live in a wooded area and am always looking for plants that deer will ignore.

  30. I will be adding some Helenium to my cottage type flower garden to provide more pollen for the butterfly and bee population

  31. I had “mardi gras” helenium in my garden, not knowing what they were and even moved them when we bought a different house, because they were so nice and tall. They were great up against our fence and mixed in with the bee balm, cone flowers and ornamental grasses. They were tall enough for the tiny birds to perch atop and wait their turn while the robins splashed in the crowded bird bath. They have lasted many years and even multiplied a little. Now I would like to get some of the different varieties to add to my “fence garden.”

  32. Good to know about another deer resistant plant that is also attractive to pollinators. Any variety would be a good addition to my flower garden to compliment liatris and monarda.

  33. I love the idea that rabbits do not bother this plant as i have many that love to eat my plants. I did add one this year and it got taller that I wanted it to so if it comes back I will remember to pinch it to make it more compact.

  34. Looks like a great fall option, especially since it is not a favorite for deer! There are certainly some beautiful options.

  35. I had one of these in my garden this year for the first time—was given by a friend, and didn’t know much about heleniums. A lot of different cultivars—think mine is moorheim beauty..but it was a bit too tall. Will know now that I need to pinch it back earlier in the season to get a shorter fuller plant. Didn’t know about the rabbit resistance so that’s great.

  36. It may be a challenge to successfully grow helenium in zone 3 where I live, but certainly worth the effort because of it’s beauty and I am encouraged that deer and rabbits will not bother the plants.

  37. Helenium article very interesting – for some reason I was completely unfamiliar with this plant. Double Trouble interested me – sorry to see the mature height of that particular variety was omitted. It is so hard to use super tall plants in a smaller garden.

  38. Great to read about all the varieties, so helpful to know another flower which the deer and rabbits prefer to pass up!

  39. Great plant! I have this in my garden and it is true that it is not favored by deer or rabbits because of its toxicity. So many beautiful cultivars! Would love to plant “Bruno” the dark mahogany red brown or the 20 inch “Short ‘N Sassy”.

  40. H. autumnale or ‘Double Trouble’ or both would be great in my border. Bright late season color and rabbit proof blooms are real assets and it sounds like they provide good support for pollinators. I’m putting Helenium and purple asters on my planting list for next spring.

  41. Love the many varieties to choose from. This is definitely a good choice for my B&B (butterfly and bee) Garden. It can use some end-of-summer/fall color.

  42. I have just the spot to try Heleniums. Can these be planted now if I am able to find them or would spring be better?

  43. I can’t help but wonder why I haven’t planted this species yet. It’s on my to do list for next spring. Love the fact that it’s deer resistant.

  44. I thought the nickname “sneezeweed” was funny – and the fact that it was supposed to drive evil spirits away!
    It looks very much like gaillardia, only a lot taller, which makes sense since they’re both in the same Asteraceae family.

  45. I will be planting some hybrid Heleniums. I like the different heights and colors to choose from.

  46. It is interesting that German and Netherland Horticulturists have worked on cultivars of an North American perennial. I will look for these next year. The colors are great, but more importantly they are not favorites of rabbits and deer and another species to help the bees and butterflies.

  47. My garden could use some color in the fall. This seems like a good plant to add. It will be hard to decide which one to choose.

  48. Love the colors and growth habit and deer and rabbit resistance. Would be great in a rain garden!

  49. The Feuersiegel’ (“fiery lightning bolt”) – sounds like it would be an impressive and beautiful addition to the garden. Always looking for perennial flowers that bloom late into the summer.

  50. Interesting! Have seen Heleniums in garden books but never had one in my garden. I’m amazed that there are so many varieties. I love the different colors and the prolific blossoms.

  51. Really like Mardi Gras for its sturdy stems and early bloom with longevity.

  52. I was not familiar with Heleniums before reading this article. It’s attraction to bees and butterflies , as well as, it’s possible use in a rain garden has caused me to consider it for a future planting.

  53. They have some gorgeous colors. I would like to find one that leans towards the reddish-orange and grow them with my bank of black-eyed susans. I bet they would spectacular. And they sound like they would be blooming about the same time.

  54. I’m amazed at the number of cultivars. It’s hard to pick one I’d like the best. This article will hopefully help me remember the word lanceolate. I said that because writing it will help me remember it.

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