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Heleniums

“Oh no,” I can hear you groan. “Please, not more late-summer-blooming daisies.” Believe me, I sympathize. By this point in the gardening year, you’ve had to endure wave after wave of perky, nearly indistinguishable composites—coreopsis, heliopsis, helianthus, inulas, silphiums, and Lord knows what else. Trust me, though—heleniums are different. First of all, there’s the shape of the flowers. Yes, they do follow the familiar composite pattern of a circular cluster of short disk florets surrounded by elongated, brightly colored ray florets (the “petals”). But a helenium’s disk florets form a kind of rounded knob—subglobose is the technical adjective—that transforms the flower from your typical two-dimensional daisy into something much more interesting and sculptural, while the ray florets (in most varieties), instead of being long and narrow, are short and notched, giving each flower head a trim, elegant look.

Then there are the warm, toasty colors, which strike a harmonious seasonal chord. (Although a few of these robust, hardy—to USDA Zone 3 in most cases—perennials bloom as early as June and July, most wait until August or September.) Sure, there are plenty of yellow-flowered species and hybrids, but there are also deep, smoldering reds, coppery browns, and rich, warm oranges—colors that make you think of sandstone canyons, or Mexican mole sauces. There are even selections in whose ray florets two or more colors blend in hallucinatory swirls, or in which an underlying color is washed and stippled with a contrasting hue. Exciting enough for you?

Origins

The genus Helenium contains upwards of 40 perennial and annual species, all of them native to the New World; only a handful, however, have made the leap from the wild to the garden. (Their common name of sneezeweed, by the way, not only grates on the ear, it is also inaccurate, since heleniums are not in the least allergy-provoking, a fact I confirmed by means of a simple experiment involving my highly allergic co-gardener. All in the interests of science, of course.) Of these 40, the most important is the highly variable perennial H. autumnale, an inhabitant of moist soils over a huge stretch of North America, from Quebec to British Columbia and from Florida to Arizona. Growing anywhere from two to five feet, it bears narrow, toothed leaves and one- to two-inch-wide deep yellow flowers. Its horticultural significance derives not from its own fairly modest charms, but rather from its status as the primary ancestor of the dozens of opulent hybrids currently available; in its various wild forms, H. autumnale is likely to appeal only to native-plant enthusiasts.

There are at least two other perennial species, though, that are attractive enough for border use. Helenium hoopesii, native to the Rocky Mountains west to Oregon and California, grows from two to three feet tall and bears three-inch, deep yellow-orange flowers with straplike, slightly drooping rays in late May or early June—exceptionally early for a helenium. The foliage is distinct as well, being gray green, entire (that is, untoothed), and with individual leaves up to one foot long.

The other is H. bigelovii, a West Coast species most often encountered in the selection called ‘The Bishop’. Whereas the wild form of H. bigelovii can grow as tall as four feet, ‘The Bishop’ stays a compact 28 inches, and sports short, deep yellow rays surrounding a blackish brown center. Most references list H. bigelovii as being much less hardy than other heleniums—only to Zone 6 or 7—but I suspect this is a case of limited anecdotal information getting passed from book to book without confirmation from gardeners who have actually grown the plant.

Hybrids

As pleasant as H. hoopesii and H. bigelovii may be, it’s the hybrids that really get your juices flowing. As with asters, border phlox, and hybrid penstemons, here again we have the case of a group of plain American wildflowers crossing the Atlantic and coming back fancy. Whether you consider the changes to be an improvement or a corruption depends, I suppose, on how you feel about “improved” flowers in general. Personally, I don’t see how anyone can object when the result is a wider palette of more vivid colors, a longer bloom period, and a sturdier overall constitution, but then I’ve always been a fan of artifice.

Although the British have contributed a modest number of hybrids (Blooms of Bressingham’s coppery red ‘Coppelia’, for example), the majority have originated in Continental nurseries, particularly in Germany and the Netherlands. Among the Olympians of helenium breeding, the preeminent figure is the German nurseryman Karl Foerster, who over a career spanning five decades released dozens of cultivars remarkable for their vigor, large flowers, and tolerance of (relatively) drier soil. Sadly, many of Foerster’s selections have disappeared over the years, but many others are still available, including ‘Goldrausch’, ‘Kanaria’, ‘Königstiger’, ‘Zimbelstern’, and my favorite, the brownish orange ‘Septemberfuchs’. Only slightly less venerable is Foerster’s countryman, Gustav Deutschmann, who has given us ‘Baudirektor Linne’, ‘Waltraut’, and the admirably compact ‘Kupferzwerg’ and ‘Rubinzwerg’, the latter a true gem in rich, dark reddish brown. Among Dutch breeders, Bonne Ruys deserves mention for his classic, reddish bronze ‘Moerheim Beauty’, an early bloomer that will reflower later in the season if scrupulously deadheaded. With luck (and a bit of prompting), American nurseries will soon start importing the sturdy new plants of another Dutch breeder, Inez Arnold, whose hybrids include the bicolor, gaillardia-like ‘Gay-Go-Round’ and ‘Ring of Fire’, the sumptuous crimson-brown ‘Potter’s Wheel’, and the yellow, large-flowered ‘Summer Circle’.

Care and Cultivation

Heleniums aren’t fussy plants, but neither are they the sort of perennial you can just stick in the ground and forget about. They need full sun and fertile soil for strong growth and abundant bloom, and a reasonably steady supply of moisture. (Although, as I mentioned above, the Foerster hybrids are able to tolerate occasional dryness, xeric they aren’t.) This means they will need to be fed in spring when they are coming into growth (an all-purpose organic fertilizer works nicely) and that they will need to be watered in dry spells. Thus cared for, they can stay put for many years. If your plants start to look spindly, however, you’ll need to divide them in early spring and replant the divisions in enriched soil.

It pains me to admit it, but heleniums produce such massive heads of flowers that some of the taller cultivars need to be staked to prevent them from flopping. If staking is a chore you can’t or won’t deal with, you can simply limit yourself to those selections (especially those cultivars whose names end in –zwerg, the German word for dwarf) that top off at two to three feet. Another way to solve the flopping problem is to pinch back the new growth by half in late spring, which will produce shorter, sturdier plants (but will also delay flowering by a couple of weeks).

Heleniums in the Garden

In my own garden, I’ve found that heleniums combine brilliantly with deep purple asters (‘Veilchenkönigin’ or ‘Hella Lacy’, for example), midnight-blue monkshoods, leadwort (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides), and delphiniums in their second blooming. But another, more daring possibility occurs to me. If some people can have an aster, why not a helenium border? It would need, I think, lots of grasses—selections of miscanthus (especially stripy cultivars like ‘Strictus’ and ‘Goldfeder’), calamagrostis (C. ×acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, appropriately), Nassella tenuissima, and maybe even some of the bronze carexes, if your climate is mild enough. Then how about tossing in some late-blooming kniphofias (‘Bressingham Comet’, ‘Cobra’), some goldenrods, and a scattering of Lilium henryi? You can practically feel the heat.

The Essentials

  • Type of plant: herbaceous perennial
  • Family: Asteraceae (daisy family)
  • Origin: North America
  • Height: 24-60 in., depending on cultivar
  • Leaves: 1 in. wide to 6 in. long, lanceolate, usually lightly serrate, medium green
  • Flowers: to 2 in. across, borne in dense clusters, yellow through orange to reddish brown
  • Bloom period: midsummer–fall, depending on cultivar
  • Hardiness: USDA Zones 3–8 (most varieties)
  • Exposure: full sun
  • Soil: moist, fertile, well drained
  • Water needs: fairly high
  • Feeding: one annual application of organic fertilizer when coming into growth in the spring
  • Propagation: by division in spring
  • Problems: none serious

Choosing Heleniums

VarietyHeightBloom period*Description
H. bigelovii ‘The Bishop’ 28 in.middle large, deep yellow flowers, black disk
H. hoopesii 24–36 in.very early large, yellow-orange flowers on strong stems; tolerates dry soil
‘Baudirektor Linne’ 38–42 in.late velvety red brown with dark brown disk; long-lasting
‘Blütentisch’ 32–38 in.middle golden yellow, reverse marked red brown, brown disk, arching habit
‘Bruno’ 38–42 in.middle dark mahogany red, flower somewhat uneven
‘Butterpat’ 38 in.late deep yellow with a yellow-green disk
‘Coppelia’ 38 in.middle swirled coppery red, fades to burnt orange, dark red-brown disk
‘Feuersiegel’ 36–42 in.late deep red flowers edged with yellow, yellow circle around light brown disk
‘Goldrausch’ 48–60 in.late golden yellow marked with brown, green-brown disk, very free-flowering
‘Kanaria’ 42–46 in.middle bright yellow flowers, formal in shape, green-yellow disk
‘Königstiger’ 42–46 in.middle golden yellow flowers with dark red-brown margin, petals uneven
‘Kupfersprudel’ 42–46 in.middle coppery brown flowers streaked with yellow, dark brown disk
‘Kupferzwerg’ 24 in.late orange-red flowers, brown disk
‘Moerheim Beauty’ 28–32 in.early rich brownish red flowers, fade to warm brown, dark disk
‘Pumilum Magnificum’ 28 in.early–middle golden yellow with red-brown base, dark yellow disk
‘Rubinzwerg’ 28 in.middle rich red brown, dark reddish brown disk
‘Septemberfuchs’ 48–60 in.late red brown overlaid on yellow, looks light orange brown, smallish flowers
‘Waltraut’ 32–36 in.early golden brown marked with yellow, very large flower heads
‘Zimbelstern’ 48–60 in.middle deep gold flowers washed with tawny brown, disk dark brown

*early = June–July; middle = July–August; late = August–September

A version of this article first appeared in Horticulture magazine, vol. 99, no. 5 (September/October 2002).