How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Sneezeweed

Are you looking for a perennial plant that is native and brings plenty of color to the garden in summer and fall? Sneezeweed is a low-maintenance plant that can do just that! In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss tells all about sneezeweed, how to grow and care for it.

Sneezeweed

Contents

Sneezeweed, also known as Helenium or Helen’s Flower, is a delightful, adaptable, and attractive perennial plant. This warm-weather herbaceous plant blooms from late summer through the fall, making them an important food source for pollinators when fewer plants are in bloom. Pollinators are drawn to helenium-like magnets.

This plant is native to all parts of the United States except Alaska, which means it can grow in almost any garden! Here is everything you need to know about caring for this dazzling flower.

Sneezeweed Plant Overview

Close-up of a Sneezeweed flower against a blurred green background. The flower is large, daisy-like, with a protruding central disk surrounded by radiant petals. Petals are bright orange with yellowish tips.
Plant Type Perennial
Family Asteraceae
Genus Helenium
Species about 40
Native Area North America
Exposure Full sun
Water Moderate
Soil Average to rich, moist
Soil pH 5.5-7.0
Hardiness Zones 3-9
Bloom Colors Warm Colors from Yellow to Red
Height up to 5’+
Season Late Summer, Fall
Pests Slugs, Spidermites
Diseases Powdery Mildew, Leaf Spot, Rust

History

Close-up of blooming Sneezeweed plants in the garden, against a blurred green background. The plant forms thin vertical stems with green lanceolate leaves. The flowers are medium-sized, similar to daisies, with prominent brown centers and bright yellow ray-shaped petals.
Sneezeweed, or Helenium, is an attractive perennial known for its ancient use as snuff.

The name Helenium comes from the story of the infamous Helen of Troy. Legend has it that where the tears of Helen fell on the ground, these flowers sprang up in their place. As Helen was best known for her enticing beauty, it’s not surprising that the flowers named for her are also quite pretty.

The nickname “sneezeweed” comes from the flowers’ ancient use as a form of snuff. When dried and ground into a powder, Helenium can be inhaled to induce sneezing. Sneezing was once thought to be a way to rid the body of evil spirits and alleviate cold symptoms, although we now know that isn’t true. Today, the plant is a popular ornamental.

Classification

Close-up of blooming Sneezeweed plants in a garden among green foliage. The leaves are narrow, lanceolate, with smooth edges. The flowers are medium-sized, daisy-shaped, with prominent brown-yellow central discs surrounded by elongated, wavy-edged petals. Petals are bright red and orange with yellow tips.
This genus belongs to the Aster family and includes 40 flowering species.

Sneezeweed is an herbaceous perennial in the Aster or Daisy (Asteraceae) family. There are about 40 species of heavily flowering plants in the Helenium genus. The most common species is Helenium autumnale, named for its fall blooming habit.

The seeds, leaves, and flowers are toxic to humans and animals. The side effects of ingesting the plant include gastric and intestinal issues, which can be fatal in some cases. It also contains sesquiterpene lactones, which cause skin irritation, particularly to mucous membranes.

Flowers

Close-up of blooming Sneezeweed, also known as Helenium, in the garden. The plant has vertical thin green stems covered with green lanceolate leaves. The flowers are medium in size, composed of prominent, bulging centers surrounded by bright yellow ray-shaped petals with slightly wavy edges.
Sneezeweed is renowned for its abundant and stunning flowers, especially during fall.

Helenium is best known for the abundance of flowers it produces. The plant is not unattractive otherwise, but its flower shows are something to behold. It is especially floriferous for a fall-blooming perennial.

The flowers are actually flower heads made up of small disk flowers in the center, flanked by an outer ring of ray flowers. Pollinators of all kinds love these flowers for their abundance of nectar. 

The flower heads come in colors on the warm end of the spectrum. They can appear in various shades of red, orange, yellow, and copper, with many varieties containing two or more of these colors. These flowers are similar to those produced by Gaillardia or Indian blanket but typically have dark brown centers.

Propagation

Top view of a Sneezeweed flower surrounded by dry seedheads, against a blurred green background. Helenium has a beautiful daisy-like flower with bright yellow ray-shaped petals and a prominent brown central disc. Seed heads are rounded, dry, brown.
They can be propagated through seed, cuttings, or division.

Sneezeweeds can be propagated in several ways. The most common is to propagate from seed. However, it can also be propagated by cuttings and division. The plants should be divided every few years, whether to propagate or otherwise. Thinning out plants will help increase air circulation, preventing diseases and pest infestation. 

When clumps are divided to maintain the health of the parent plant, propagation is quite simple. New shoots and clumps can be dug up, cut from the central root system, and planted elsewhere. 

The soil temperature needs to be reasonably warm to grow from seed. 70°F is ideal for germination, which takes place in 10-21 days. The seeds can be started in seed trays indoors in cooler climates. Lightly press the seeds into potting soil.

Do not cover, as these seeds need light to germinate. Keep the seeds consistently moist by misting the newly-planted seeds and laying a piece of cling film over the top of the soil to keep the moisture from evaporating. Carefully remove the film when you see the first signs of germination.

Planting

Close-up of a young Sneezeweed seedling with a large, dense root ball on the soil in a sunny garden. The plant has upright short stems covered with elongated, narrow, bright green lanceolate leaves. The root ball consists of twisted thin white roots and potting mix.
Plant Helenium in spring to allow ample time for establishment before the late summer blooming season

The best time to plant is in spring, so the plants have time to establish themselves before the late summer blooming season. Sneezeweeds do not have to be buried deeply. If planting bare root plants, dig a hole that is as deep and twice the width of the root. Place the root in the position you prefer and backfill lightly. The soil should be just even with the top of the roots.

How to Grow

Sneezeweed is an easy plant to grow and take care of. With such a wide native range, Helenium grows as a wildflower throughout the United States and much of Canada. These plants can withstand harsh weather conditions.

They’re cold-hardy as far north as zone 3. They are also heat tolerant all the way south to zone 9. Sneezeweed requires very little maintenance once established.

Containers

Close-up of a young Sneezeweed seedling in a large yellow container, outdoors. The plant has lush green foliage. The leaves are oblong, lanceolate, with smooth edges and texture.
As plants grow larger each year, container-grown plants will require frequent repotting.

Sneezeweed comes back larger each year, so planting it in a small container will most certainly result in frequent repotting. If you want to grow your Helenium in a container, we recommend either a large pot or a raised bed that will contain its spread while giving your plants plenty of room to grow. A raised bed of sneezeweed can be a gorgeous sight when in bloom.

Light

Close-up of flowering Sneezeweed plants in sunlight. The plant produces upright thin stems, with lanceolate green leaves and colorful flowers. The flowers are daisy-like, with protruding rounded central discs, with bright red-orange, slightly ruffled petals.
For optimal blooms, sneezeweed thrives in full sun with at least 6 hours of sun per day, preferably in the morning.

Full sun is best for sneezeweed to get the most blooms from your plant. If planted in the shade, Helenium will get quite leggy as it grows toward the light. Strive for 6 hours of sun, or more, per day. The morning sun is the best, as it is cooler than the afternoon sun.

If your plants get any shade, afternoon shade is best. The more sun these plants can get in the early part of the day, the more beautiful and floriferous your sneezeweed will be.

This is an excellent thing to remember when choosing a spot for your plants. In warmer climates, the concept of full sun can be different than in cooler climates.

If you’re growing Helenium in a warmer climate, ensure your plants have some shade from the afternoon sun. Plants should be placed in a location that gets as much sun as possible in cooler climates. 

Water

Top view of flowering Sneezeweed plants covered with raindrops. The plant bears small, daisy-like flowers with bright, ray-shaped, orange-colored petals and prominent dark brown central discs. The leaves are dark green, lanceolate, smooth.
They prefer consistently moist soil and need watering during prolonged droughts.

Sneezeweeds have moderate watering needs. While they are considered somewhat drought-tolerant once established, these plants prefer consistently moist soil. They will suffer if not watered during prolonged drought. 

These plants will thrive best when given at least an inch of water per week. Water your Helenium whenever the soil is dry for the best results. Applying a layer of mulch around the bottom of the plant will help to retain some moisture in the soil.

Soil

Close-up of a gardener's hand with a shovel digging soil in a sunny garden. The shovel is small, metal. The soil is loose, dry, dark brown.
Sneezeweed plants thrive in slightly acidic soil with a pH range of 5.5-7.0, preferably rich in clay.

Helenium plants prefer their soil to be somewhat acidic. A pH of 5.5-7.0 is ideal for these plants. 

A moderately firm soil is preferable. Clay-heavy soil with organic matter mixed into it is ideal for these plants, but they will survive in most soil types. Consider adding worm castings to your native clay soil.

The exception is sandy soil. Because of their relatively high need for moisture, sandy soil is not a good option for these plants. Planting Helenium in soil that drains well but that still retains moisture is best. These plants do well in moist soil but don’t enjoy boggy conditions.

Climate and Temperature

Close up of flowering Sneezeweed plants in sunlight, in a garden. The plant forms vertical thin stems with bright green lanceolate leaves. The flowers are medium sized and bloom profusely. The flowers are daisy-like in shape with bright orange petals arranged around protruding central burgundy-yellow discs.
This genus has a broad native range with good cold tolerance. It can also tolerate hot, humid climates.

Sneezeweed grows in a very large native range. From central Canada to Florida and Texas, Helenium is widely adaptable. These plants are warm-weather bloomers, but their roots are hardy as far north as Zone 3, so they have excellent cold tolerance in their dormant season. 

As an herbaceous perennial, the above-ground plant parts will die back in cold winters. Don’t worry; they should regenerate in spring!

Humidity and heat are not big issues. These plants can tolerate hot, humid summers as long as they are given enough moisture. In areas where the humidity level is particularly high consistently, watch out for fungal disease, and don’t allow your sneezeweed to become overly crowded. Humid climates tend to make plants more susceptible to fungal disease.

Fertilizer

Close-up of a profusely flowering Sneezeweed in a sunny garden. Numerous small daisy-like flowers with bright orange-red, orange and yellow petals arranged around prominent rounded central discs. The stems are thin, covered with lanceolate dark green leaves.
They don’t need regular fertilizing in rich soil, as too much nitrogen reduces flowering.

Heleniums are not heavy-feeding plants. They won’t need regular fertilizing as long as they are planted in fairly rich soil. Too much fertilizer or nitrogen-rich soil will mean more foliar growth and fewer flowers, so avoid fertilizing throughout their growing season.

Especially avoid fertilizers that are high in nitrogen. A light fertilizing in the spring with blood meal or bone meal will be all they need to look and perform their best.

Maintenance and Care

Sneezeweed Care and Maintenance in Garden
Heleniums are low maintenance, benefiting from pinching back new growth for sturdier plants and later blooming.

Aside from that single yearly fertilizing, Heleniums are very low maintenance. In late spring, once the plants have had some time to grow, pinching back the new growth will result in a later bloom but will produce sturdier plants with more branches, thus more flowers. 

After your sneezeweed has bloomed, cut back all flower stems down to the foliage. Deadheading throughout the flowering season will also encourage more flowers and help the plant direct energy toward new growth. 

Every few years (3-5), you must thin the patch. These perennials will crowd each other after a while, making them more susceptible to disease. Plants will also lose their vigor if allowed to multiply too freely. Separating plants every so often will keep them strong.

There are more than 40 species of Helenium and many hybrid variations from several countries. The plant’s excellent cold and heat tolerance makes it quite popular as an ornamental pollinator plant. Here are some of my favorite varieties with the most unique and beautiful blooms.

‘El Dorado’

Close-up of Helenium autumnale 'El Dorado' flowering plants in the garden. Helenium autumnale 'El Dorado' is a perennial plant with striking features. It has strong stems and lanceolate green leaves. The flowers are large, with golden yellow petals and a dark brown center.
This compact variety is known for its long blooming season of golden flowers from summer to fall.
botanical-name botanical name Helenium autumnale ‘El Dorado’
bloom-colors bloom colors Yellow and Red
height height up to 3’
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 4-8

‘El Dorado’ lives up to its name with masses of golden flowers during a long blooming season from summer through fall. This compact variety reaches only about 3’ tall, but this small size has benefits. ‘El Dorado’ has sturdy stems that show resiliency to environmental factors like wind and rain.

The flowers appear from July through to October and have deep brown centers speckled with tiny yellow stamens around the edge. The larger petals are bright yellow and occasionally have small red splashes.

‘Hot Lava’

Close-up of Helenium 'Hot Lava' against a blurred green background. Helenium 'Hot Lava' is a captivating perennial plant known for its fiery appearance. He has a compact stature. The leaves are spear-shaped and dark green in color. The flowers show intense shades of red. The petals are reflexed, surrounded by prominent dark purple centers with yellowish markings.
Another compact variety, ‘Hot Lava,’ has showy flowers that start mostly yellow with red streaking and mature to deep crimson red.
botanical-name botanical name Helenium ‘Hot Lava’
bloom-colors bloom colors Red
height height 3’
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 4-9

This hybrid was created in the Netherlands to grow compactly and produce especially flashy flowers. These pretty blooms appear as yellow with some red streaking. As the flowers mature, their color intensifies to a deep crimson red before fading to a softer shade of orange. 

The color-changing nature of these flowers makes this variety extra popular. They show up en masse from early summer through to the fall months. They also make excellent cut flowers with sturdy stems, upward-facing blooms, and a long vase life.

‘Mardi Gras’

Top view, close-up of Helenium ‘Helbro’ Mardi Gras in bloom. The plant forms upright stems with dark green spear-shaped leaves. The flowers show vibrant combinations of red, orange and yellow. The petals are decorated with an intricate pattern of patches and stripes of contrasting colors.
A lively variety, ‘Mardi Gras’ grows up to 4′ tall with rich foliage and abundant flowers when pinched in late spring.
botanical-name botanical name Helenium ‘Helbro’ Mardi Gras
bloom-colors bloom colors Yellow, Orange, and Red
height height 3’ – 4’
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 3-8

You may have guessed by the name that this plant is a real garden party. ‘Mardi Gras’ is a slightly taller variety, reaching 4’ tall when mature. Pinching this variety in late spring will lead to rich, dense foliage and plenty of flowers. The stems are nice and strong in this variety, so the flowers are great for cutting.

The flowers appear during midsummer in a great, colorful show. The center of the blooms is reddish brown. The base color of the blooms is bright yellow splashed with brilliant red and orange, making for a very colorful and interesting plant. 

‘Potter’s Wheel’

Close-up of blooming Helenium 'Potter's Wheel' against a blurred green background. The flowers are medium-sized, daisy-like, with prominent chocolate brown cones surrounded by ray-shaped bright red petals with contrasting yellow margins.
This Dutch hybrid has heavily blooming stems, showcasing chocolate brown and yellow centers.
botanical-name botanical name Helenium ‘Potter’s Wheel’
bloom-colors bloom colors Red and Yellow
height height 3’ – 4’
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 3-8

‘Potter’s Wheel’ is a Dutch hybrid Helenium variety. This cultivar flowers so heavily in late summer that it often needs support to hold up its stems. The flowers bloom in clusters at the end of branches, making this one of the most floriferous varieties.

The blooms have a chocolate brown center which gradually turns yellow as the flowers age. The larger circle of petals is a deep, velvety red with a thin yellow halo around the very outer edge of the flower. The flowers are set off nicely against attractive green foliage.

‘Ring of Fire’

Close-up of blooming Helenium 'Ring of Fire' in the garden. It forms a tall shrub with vertical thin stems covered with green lanceolate leaves. The flowers of 'Ring of Fire' are the true showstoppers, with their fiery coloration and unique appearance. The petals are reddish-brown in color with bright yellow rings in the center and along the outer edges.
Reddish-brown flowers appear in late summer, featuring yellow rings at the center and edges.
botanical-name botanical name Helenium ‘Ring of Fire’
bloom-colors bloom colors Yellow and Red
height height 4’ – 5’
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 5-9

Another delightful hybrid, ‘Ring of Fire,’ is an award winner for good reason. This taller variety reaches up to 5’ tall, making it a great midground flower in the garden. Plant this variety, and you will see many native bees and butterflies visiting the garden.

‘Ring of Fire’ blooms in late summer. The flowers are a reddish brown color, with rings of yellow toward the center and around the outer edges. Sometimes the flowers have a splashier appearance, with the yellow portions woven throughout the darker background shade. 

‘Short n’Sassy’

Top view, close-up of Helenium 'Short n' Sassy' blooming in a sunny garden. The plant forms upright stems covered with dense, medium-sized, lanceolate green leaves. The flowers are small, showcasing a delightful combination of bright golden yellow and orange hues. The petals are slightly drooping down, creating an elegant and sophisticated look. Each flower has a vibrant chocolate brown central cone in the center.
You will love this dwarf variety with smaller but noteworthy bright golden yellow and orange flowers.
botanical-name botanical name Helenium ‘Short n’Sassy’
bloom-colors bloom colors Yellow and Orange
height height 12”-18”
hardiness-zones hardiness zones 4-8

‘Short n’Sassy’ has some great characteristics that make it wonderful for borders and foreground planting. This cultivar was hybridized to have a dwarf growing habit, so it only reaches about 18” tall at maturity. It was also bred to have an earlier and longer blooming habit, so it will begin blooming mid-summer and continue to show off until September. 

This variety has smaller flowers, around 1.5” rather than a more standard 2”. Not a huge difference, but noteworthy as it was bred to be smaller. Bright golden yellow and orange flowers have downturned petals that surround a chocolate brown central cone. 

Pests and Diseases

Sneezeweeds are surprisingly pest-deterrent and deer-resistant. Few typical garden pests spend much time seeking out these plants. Instead, they are incredibly popular with various pollinating and beneficial insects. They are vulnerable to a few diseases, but for the most part, Helenium is notorious for being easy to grow and sturdy.

Slugs

Close-up of a slug among green foliage. Slugs are slimy, soft-bodied creatures. It has a distinct elongated cylindrical shape. Its body is covered in wet mucus. The body is brown, segmented.
Snails and slugs may target young Helenium plants but don’t pose severe risks to mature plants.

Slugs and snails can be an issue for young plants, although, once mature, Helenium is not much of a target for these slimy garden snackers. There are many ways to deter slugs and snails from eating your plants. 

Diatomaceous earth can deter slugs and snails until it gets wet. They are also not partial to bark mulches, as the bark often has fine slivers that repel them.

A wide copper strip around the exterior of your container or garden bed can also keep them at bay. Once your plants are mature, the slugs and snails are less concerning of an issue.

Spider Mites

Close-up of a green leaf infested with spider mites, against a blurred green background. Spider mites are tiny arachnids. These pests are translucent reddish in color. Spider mites have a round or oval body with eight legs.
These annoying mites can be detected by their weblike structures and causing shriveled growth.

Spider mites are a potential problem for Helenium. However, they are unlikely to do great damage to mature plants. They are best detected by identifying the thin, weblike structures they build beneath plant leaves. These insects feed on the sweet sap of plants, leading to shriveled and stunted growth.

Neem oil is an effective treatment for spider mites, as are insecticidal soaps and horticultural oils. However, with sneezeweed being so popular among pollinating insects, spraying them with insecticides is not ideal. Use neem oil in the evening after pollinators have left.

Powdery Mildew

Close-up of a green leaf of a lanceolate shape, diseased with powdery mildew, against a blurred background. The leaf is pale green in color, covered with a white powdery coating.
Powdery mildew is a common issue for Helenium and can easily spread in overcrowded beds.

Some varieties, such as ‘Sombrero,’ have been bred for better resistance to powdery mildew, but this is the most common issue for other cultivars.

Powdery mildew is a fungal disease usually resulting from overcrowding in the garden and occasionally from watering in the evening, as the damp leaves and cooler temperatures create a perfect condition for fungal spores to take hold. 

This fungal disease is easy to detect. It causes a powdery white appearance to appear on foliage and can permanently discolor leaves. It is rarely fatal to the plant but can lead to less robust plants that don’t flower well. Thin out plants that become crowded to improve air circulation and prevent infections.

Rust

Close-up of green leaves affected by 'Rust' fungal disease. The leaves are oblong, lanceolate, bright green in color, covered with many irregular spots and dots of a rusty hue.
Water splashing spreads rust, a fungal disease causing blister-like masses on leaf undersides.

Rust is another fungal disease that spreads via fungal spores, often carried by water. Water splashing onto a leaf surface and pooling there can spread these spores and infect the plant. Watering plants at the base rather than overhead can help to reduce the risk of fungal diseases on the foliage of your plants.

Rust diseases create red, blister-like masses on the underside of affected leaves, releasing a red powdery substance containing spores. On the upper surface of the masses, it will be reddish-brown in color, similar to the rust from which it takes its name. It doesn’t look very nice, and additionally, it damages the health of the plant as a whole, making it more vulnerable to other diseases and pests.

Dusting affected plants with sulfur powder once a week until the disease is no longer active is an effective treatment for rust, provided that the leaves stay dry; if they do not, the sulfur powder will be washed off the leaves and the treatment will be ineffective.

Leaf Spot

Close-up of a green leaf affected by the Leaf Spot disease. leaves are green, with a slightly glossy texture. The leaf surface is covered with irregular white spots with purple-black halos.
These fungal or bacterial diseases can be mistaken for insect damage.

Leaf spot can refer to several different diseases commonly affecting ornamental and edible plants and trees. The cause can be bacterial or fungal, and insect damage may be mistaken for a leaf spot disease. The most common symptom, of course, is spots on the leaves. These can be black, brown, or white and of different shapes and sizes, depending on the cause. 

Plants in the Asteraceae family are most commonly affected by Septoria, Alternaria, and Cercospora. All three of these are fungal and can be dealt with similarly. All affected foliage should be removed, and the rest of the plant should be treated with a fungicide. Avoid allowing water to pool or sit on the leaves until things are under control.

Final Thoughts

Sneezeweed, or Helenium, is a versatile, hardy, low-maintenance flowering perennial. It is easy to grow and native to most of the North American continent. Very few pests, including deer and rodents, are attracted to this plant, and pollinators will be grateful for the late-season nectar and pollen that these plants will provide.

Adding some of this pretty, flowering plant to your garden will bring a huge pop of late summer and fall gardens and come back year after year with more of their cheery blooms!

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