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Mt Cuba Center
Back to News Updates – January 27, 2020


Homecoming for Helenium

The disc florets of Helenium autumnale add cheer to the late summer garden.

Helenium, native to the Americas and popular as a garden plant in Europe, was trialed at Mt. Cuba from 2017-2019. The results of the trial are now available.

Mt. Cuba Center releases Helenium for the Mid-Atlantic Region, a report that summarizes three years of evaluating 44 selections of the flowering perennial Helenium, sometimes called sneezeweed. Researchers at the botanical garden studied these selections and ranked the plants based on their floral display, health and attractiveness for pollinators and other beneficial insects. 

View the full report here.

This perennial plant is popular as a border plant because of its height, eye-catching colorful flowers and self-sowing nature. Native to the Americas, it was brought into cultivation in Europe in the 18th century, where it has remained a popular garden plant.

Helenium deserves a second look in American horticulture,” said Sam Hoadley, Mt. Cuba Center’s manager of horticultural research. “They are in bloom when gardens are in a lull, right at the end of summer and beginning of fall and they all contribute an extremely vibrant, bright, fiery color.”

Outdoor headshot of Sam Hoadley
Manager of Horticultural Research Sam Hoadley

Helenium is commonly called sneezeweed because of the historical use of dried and ground Helenium plant parts that were inhaled through the nose, not because the flowers themselves induce sneezing, which colonists used as a replacement for tobacco snuff.

Top performers include Helenium ‘Kanaria’ and H. ‘Zimbelstern’, both of which were developed by renowned Dutch plant breeder Karl Foerster specifically to withstand dry soil conditions, which likely contributed to their success in the trial as Mt. Cuba Center’s Trial Garden has dry soil and full sun conditions.

Browse plants by performance score here.

H. ‘Can Can’

The plants were also evaluated for their horticultural value and attractiveness to pollinators, specifically bees and wasps which are essential to a functioning ecosystem. To determine the species and cultivars that attracted the most pollinators, Mt. Cuba Center’s Pollinator Watch Team, a group of more than 30 volunteers, maintained rigorous observational records of the Helenium included in the trial. Helenium autumnale accumulated the most observed pollinator visits (162), while H. ‘Zimbelstern’ attracted 151.

H. ‘Zimbelstern’

Mt. Cuba Center’s Trial Garden is maintained with the home gardener in mind. Plants are watered as needed during the first year in order to get them established, but afterwards they are left on their own. Pesticides are not used unless there is a serious threat to the entire trial’s survivability.

Other top performers include:

  • H. autumnale ‘Can Can’
  • H. ‘Flammenspiel’
  • H. autumnale
  • H. ‘Kugelsonne’
  • H. ‘Tijuana Brass’
  • H. flexuosum
  • H. ‘Potter’s Wheel’
  • H. ‘Flammendes Katchen’