Helenium is definitely one of my favourites in the perennial garden. Hardy to zone 3, making it a northern garden must-have. Showy flowers beginning in July and continuing through until frost.
This one is tall, up to 4 feet, and needs to be staked before it blooms. I planted it in the centre of the garden amongst hardy hibiscus, rose campion, purple coneflowers and Monarda. Helen's flower does best in full sun although I do have it in a shade garden which receives only late day sunshine. The only difference I can notice in the shade is shorter plants. There are some shorter varieties maxing out at 30 inches, although I've never seen them available in my area.
It prefers to be watered regularly and will do poorly in hot, dry areas. That is understandable once we realize that in its native habitat it is found in moist soils along streams and ponds. It can tolerate short periods of drought, as I discovered one summer when watering the garden was not one of my priorities. My reward for this neglect was a much shorter bloom period and dry, brown leaves at the base of the plant. Just to be safe, since it's tall enough, I planted Nicotiana seeds around it. If ever I have to let it get too dry the Nicotiana will hide the bare bottoms.
Helenium tends to crowd itself out over time and benefits from dividing the clump every 3 or 4 years. This is best done in the spring, just when the first green shoots become visible. I dig up the clump and slice it with the shovel, although the more patient among you might prefer to pry apart the roots. Replant and water in well and it won't even realize it has been divided. This habit of growing in clumps also keeps it a tidy plant. I have never had problems with it self-seeding.
The flowers, which remind me of a tiny blanket flower, come in colours ranging from pure yellow to deep red and most combinations in between. The blooming period can be lengthened by deadheading the spent flowers. They are wonderful as a cut flower too, looking lovely in a vase with Asters. Using them as a cut flower also solves the problem of deadheading!!
Sneezeweed, so named because early settlers ground up the leaves and used the powder as a "snuff", is highly attractive to butterflies. I have also noticed Hummingbird Moths on them in the evenings.
Although sometimes succeptible to powdery mildew, I have never had a problem with it in my gardens. The Helenium even resisted the plague of aphids we saw last year, standing bug-free in the midst of other, not so lucky, perennials.
I highly recommend this perennial with a couple of warnings. The entire plant is poisonous, not good if you have inquisitive pets or young children. I like how tall it is, it looks so good in the centre of my flower beds, but it has to be staked early to keep it from breaking or blowing down in high winds.
On the plus side, the blooms are outstanding as fall colour. When most perennials are fading or finished, the Helenium is in full swing. The water requirements are not a problem for me in my area but could be for those living with watering restrictions. Hardy enough that I need never worry about it coming back in the spring. Well-behaved in the garden, staying in nice, tidy clumps. Except for the staking, it needs no special care that I have noticed.
Please, consider Helenium when shopping for your next perennial.
Photo credits to bigcityal, Galanthophile, Saya and dlyn for their wonderful pictures.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 25, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)