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What is a Helenium Plant and How to Care for It?

Bright orange flower heads of the helenium plant growing in bright patch

Helenium Autumnale

If you want to be all scientific about it call it helenium autumnale, if you want to be casual about it call it either helen’s flower or common helenium, but if you want to be cool about it, call it sneezeweed. This is a simple and lovely perennial plant that is a proud member of the sunflower family (asteraceae) along with daisies and asters and the like.

Sneezeweed is a strange name, we agree! It gets this funky nickname because folks used to used the dried leaves of the helenium plant to make snuff! Snuff is an herbal, smokeless tobacco supplement that folks used to keep in fancy little boxes and use it to encourage sneezing to rid themselves of evil spirits. Don’t be too shocked, stranger things have happened.

Besides keeping the ghosts at bay, heleniums are late flowering plants that bring beautiful autumnal flowers to your newly wild garden just as the spring and summer perennials are fading. The common sneezeweed is marvellously easy to care for and there are hundreds of cultivars to choose from. Go! Go plant helenium right after you read this and earn yourself some garden merit!

What do Helenium Plants Look Like?

Bright red petals of the helenium flower head

Flowers

Very classic of the daisy family, helenium flowers are composite flowers comprised is ray florets with a large centre disc. They will often bloom in the late summer or early autumn (rarely early summer), bringing petals of autumnal colors to an otherwise fading garden.

The color of a helenium flower will vary slightly from cultivar to cultivar. The original flower color is a simple yellow or orange color, though horticulturists have created flower heads that are nearly any shade imaginable of golden, red, orange, and brown.

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Leaves

The helenium leaf shape is lanceolate, which is basically an elongated oval with a pointed tip (like a wider version of a blade of grass). Foliage is a matte green color and grow alternately along the flower stem.

Growth Habit

The plant as a whole will usually grow to be anywhere from 2 feet to 6 feet in height (about 2 metres), though plant height will vary depending on the variety and growing location. Flower stems are stiff and stand very erect with leaves that grow alternately along the stem. Each individual flower stem will hold one single flower at the top.

Underneath the soil, helenium plants have thin and spacious root systems. These can become intertwined and tangled, and the plant will benefit highly from being divided every 3-5 years.

Reproduction

Characteristic of members of the sunflower family, heleniums are really quite good at reproduction. Being perennial plants, they will produce many many seeds throughout their lifetime.

Helenium flowers are quite popular amongst the pollinating species, as they are a late flowering plant that sticks around for a hood while as the other perennials are fading away. Insects like bees, moths, butterflies, and wasps rely on their nectar.

Once a helenium flower is pollinated, it will produce many lightweight seeds that germinate very readily. If you’re not careful, a helenium patch can very quickly take over a green space. Deadhead spent helenium flowers before they have a chance to go to seed.

Where is Helenium a Native Plant?

Amazing leggy patch of helenium plants with bright red flowers growing in a meadow

This herbaceous perennial plant is native to the Americas, but grow most prosperously in the southern parts of Canada and all over the United States (they tend to keep where temperatures don’t get too too cold).

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When growing wild, they can often be found growing in moist places that receive plenty of sunlight. This will often be something like the edge of a damp woodland, or in a moist, low lying meadow.

What are the Growing Conditions of the Helenium Plant?

It doesn’t take much to keep a helenium plant happy. Any gardener should be able to easily establish and maintain a healthy helenium patch. There a couple of things to remember:

Lovely yellow and orange flowers of the helenium plant blooming in fall

Soil Type

Though they aren’t particularly picky about soil type when they grow in the wild, there are ways to make sure a helenium is very happy in your garden.

They prefer to exist in soil that is fertile. You can achieve this by incorporating a generous amount of compost into the soil at the beginning of the growing season. Soil acidity level is flexible, though the ideal pH occurs between 5.5-7.0.

Soil should also be very well drained. This important to help prevent issues like powdery mildew and leaf spot. They prefer to be in moist soil, though they are also relatively drought tolerant.

Sun Exposure

Heleniums are sun loving creatures — this is apparent by the way they are found growing in the wild: on the edges of woodlands and in expansive meadows.

They should be receiving a minimum of 6 hours of direct sunlight per day, though they can completely tolerate partial shade in the afternoon.

These plants will search for the sun, so if they don’t receive the proper amount of sunlight in a day they will start to become leggy, as they will grow where the sun is strongest.

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Water Level

It is important for a young helenium plant to receive plenty of moisture when it is first being established. When growing in your garden, they should be watered once a week.

Moist soil is ideal for a helenium (not wet soil), though they are entirely tolerant of temporarily dry soil when it comes down to it. When growing wild they love to live in naturally moist areas with tons of humidity.

Brilliant bright orange flower heads growing in late autumn

Temperature

Though they are not too picky about temperature, heleniums tend to not like to live in extremes. They won’t tolerate arctic winters, nor tropical summers, but are happy anywhere in between. They can exist in USDA growing zones 3 through 8.

When it comes to seed germination, the ideal temperature is around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature seeds should begin to sprout within 7-9 days.

Pruning

Though not entirely necessary for its health, helenium plants can handle some pruning to keep it neat and tidy looking. In spring (before flowering) stems can be pinched to start the growing season more like a shrub and less leggy.

Once blooming is over, the flower stalks can be snipped all the way down to where the foliage grows. This can sometimes encourage a second blossom to occur.

Additionally, so as to ensure that the root systems of the individual plants don’t get too crowded (and to help prevent root rot) divide clumps of roots every 2-3 years.

Fertilizer

Heleniums love living in fertile soil. If you’re worried about the soil health on your property, you can achieve soil fertility in two ways.

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Either apply a slow release fertilizer to the soil in the early spring, or simply incorporate plenty of compost before the growing season of the plants.

Intolerances

At the end of the day, there isn’t all that much you can throw at a helenium that it won’t take in stride. These are prolific growers and the main thing to remember is that they don’t like extreme heat or extreme cold.

How are Helenium Plants Used?

Dark red flowers of helenium flower heads growing in a lovely garden

Ornamental Plant

Ask any gardener and they will tell you that the helenium is the perfect low maintenance late blooming perennial plant. They are valued for their plethora of autumn colors.

Horticulturists have established plants with flowers of nearly every shade of yellow, gold, red, and brown. Not only do they make beautiful cut flowers for fall flower bouquets, but they are often used to plant in mass plantings beside ornamental grasses for a more prairie planting look.

Planting helenium helps make a green space look more natural with a wildflower feel. They are perfect for a cottage garden, rock garden, and as a container plant on a balcony. Taller varieties also provide the perfect amount of shade for shorter plants that like a certain amount of shade in a day.

Wildlife Ecology

Heleniums are very valuable source of nectar for pollinator species, as they are one of the last flowers to bloom before everything goes to sleep for the winter. They are also a main food plant for various lepidopteran (moth and butterfly) species.

Various helenium flowers growing together in a large garden

FAQs

Is helenium deer resistant?

Another attractive aspect of the helenium plant species is that they are entirely deer resistant. Taller varieties are also tall enough where this can help deter deer and rabbits from lower growing plants that they may prefer.

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Are heleniums perennials?

Depending on the species and the place they are growing, a helenium will grow either as an annual plant (completing its entire life cycle within a year) or as a herbaceous perennial (continuing to blossom year after year as long as they can grow in ideal conditions).

Do heleniums grow from bulbs?

Heleniums don’t grow from underground bulbs, but rather from shallow and widespread thin root systems.

Are helenium plants hardy?

Though they are not too picky about temperature, heleniums tend to not like to live in extremes. They won’t tolerate arctic winters, nor tropical summers, but are happy anywhere in between. They can exist in USDA growing zones 3 through 8.

When it comes to seed germination, the ideal temperature is around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature seeds should begin to sprout within 7-9 days.

Can I grow helenium from seed?

Helenium plants can easily be grown from seed. As long as the mean temperature of a day hovers around 70 degrees Fahrenheit and they receive enough sunlight and moisture. Don’t cover helenium seeds with a thick layer of soil, as seeds need a certain amount of sun exposure in order to germinate.

Should heleniums be divided?

When it comes to heleniums, so as to ensure that the root systems of the individual plants don’t get too crowded (and to help prevent root rot) divide clumps of roots every 2-3 years.

When do helenium flowers bloom?

Very classic of the daisy family, helenium flowers are composite flowers comprised is ray florets with a large centre disc. They will often bloom in the late summer or early autumn (rarely early summer), bringing petals of autumnal colors to an otherwise fading garden.

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Can helenium grow in shade?

Heleniums are sun loving creatures — this is apparent by the way they are found growing in the wild: on the edges of woodlands and in expansive meadows.

They should be receiving a minimum of 6 hours of direct sunlight per day, though they can completely tolerate partial shade in the afternoon.

These plants will search for the sun, so if they don’t receive the proper amount of sunlight in a day they will start to become leggy, as they will grow where the sun is strongest.

How tall does helenium get?

The plant a whole will usually grow to be anywhere from 2 feet to 6 feet in height (about 2 metres), though plant height will vary depending on the variety and growing location. Flower stems are stiff and stand very erect with leaves that grow alternately along the stem. Each individual flower stem will hold one single flower at the top.

Underneath the soil, helenium plants have thin and spacious root systems. These can become intertwined and tangled, and the plant will benefit highly from being divided every 3-5 years.

Should helenium be deadheaded?

Though not entirely necessary for its health, helenium plants can handle some pruning to keep it neat and tidy looking. In spring (before flowering) stems can be pinched to start the growing season more like a shrub and less leggy.

Once blooming is over, the flower stalks can be snipped all the way down to where the foliage grows. This can sometimes encourage a second blossom to occur.

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What type of soil do helenium plants prefer?

Though they aren’t particularly picky about soil type when they grow in the wild, there are ways to make sure a helenium is very happy in your garden.

They prefer to exist in soil that is fertile. You can achieve this by incorporating a generous amount of compost into the soil at the beginning of the growing season. Soil acidity level is flexible, though the ideal pH occurs between 5.5-7.0.

Soil should also be very well drained. This important to help prevent issues like powdery mildew and leaf spot. They prefer to be in moist soil, though they are also relatively drought tolerant.

Why is helenium called sneezeweed?

Sneezeweed is a strange name, we agree! It gets this funky nickname because folks used to used the dried leaves of the helenium plant to make snuff! Snuff is an herbal, smokeless tobacco supplement that folks used to keep in fancy little boxes and use it to encourage sneezing to rid themselves of evil spirits. Don’t be too shocked, many stranger things have happened.