One of our favorite fall flowers is Helenium autumnale, commonly called “sneezeweed.”  Helenium is covered with flowers from early September until frost, and it blooms in all of the fall colors – yellow, orange, red, and burgundy – sometimes all at once on the same plant! The flowers attract bees and butterflies, and the plant is a reliable, well-behaved perennial that enjoys full sun and average soil moisture. 

Heleniumn autumnale ‘Mariachi Salsa’

The only part of its name that makes sense is “autumnale,” because it does indeed bloom in autumn. Apparently, the name “Helenium” refers to Helen of Troy, and some romantics say that the blooms arose originally from Helen’s tears. Since the plant is native to North America, and Helen of Troy didn’t even know this continent existed, that legend makes no sense.  Maybe the flowers are as beautiful as the mythical Helen? The bees seem to think so.

Multiple colors on the same plant

And then there is the strange and misleading common name – “sneezeweed.” Helenium is pollinated by insects, not wind, so it is not a source of fall allergies. However, the seeds of Helenium were used by certain Native American tribes as a sort of snuff intended to cause violent sneezing when inhaled. It was thought that clearing the sinuses with strong sneezes was therapeutic. Unless you try that, Helenium should not cause any sneezing.

We planted Helenium ‘Mariachi Salsa’ along the foundation of the Manor House, as well as in the Pollinator Garden.  It only grows to about 2 ½ feet tall, and it forms a tidy mound that looks good at the front-to-middle of the garden. Try it for great fall flower color and to feed late-season pollinators. Although the straight species has mostly yellow flowers, nurseries are showing numerous cultivars in a variety of showy fall colors.

Helenium at the Manor House foundation
Helenium in the pollinator garden

Call it Helenium, or even call it “Helen” if you like, but please don’t call it “sneezeweed.” That’s just mean.

This blog is authored weekly by Cathy Ludden, local expert and advocate for native plants and Board Member, Greenburgh Nature Center.

12 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. So glad you are finding a perfect place to share your vast expertise on native plants and all things green and natural!!

  2. I’m a big fan of these types of post where you learn and gain some interesting tidbits. I’m looking forward to more posts. Keep it up…

  3. This post was interesting to me because my Mother’s name was Helen. She was a Registered Nurse and gave me weekly inoculations to help control my allergies. What could be more appropriate for me to find significant than “Helen’s Sneezeweed”?

  4. Great post on the origin of the botanical name. Makes me want to sit down and chat with the local expert and talk plants. It really does help to ID plants when you know the back story. I’m looking forward to future back stories and visiting the nature center.

  5. What a fun post! Thanks for the info and a fun take on plant names-leaves me wondering what’s behind other names…

    1. Helenium is definitely a weird one. Most of the Latin names are more descriptive — but maybe less interesting!

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