Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) blooms for many weeks, starting in late summer and continuing through mid-fall, offering nectar and pollen for hungry insect foragers late in the growing season.
It is a member of the Aster family, a vast group second only to the Orchid family in the number of species it includes. There are Aster family members blooming in early spring, but mid-summer through the end of fall is the time that ‘asters’ really dominate the landscape. Coneflowers, goldenrods, asters, bonesets, tickseeds, beggar-ticks, dandelions and more all belong to this huge plant family.
The Aster family is also sometimes called the Composite family, because their many tiny flowers grow in clusters, called heads, that look to us like a single flower. There are two types of flowers possible in an ‘aster’ flower head, ray flowers and disk flowers. Sneezeweed has both. Ray flowers look like petals, and disk flowers are tiny tubular flowers clustered in the center of the flower head. When both ray and disk flowers are present in a flower head, the ray flowers may not produce any nectar or have any reproductive parts. In this case, the function of the petal-like ray flowers is primarily to add to the floral display and landing platform that will entice pollinators to come to visit. The disk flowers are where all the action takes place, offering nectar and pollen to potential pollinators. The photo below shows a butterfly foraging on the disk flowers of a Sneezeweed flower head.
Which brings us to the name, Sneezeweed. Is this the plant that has been causing you to sneeze, making your eyes itchy and watery, and your nose runny? No! Well, maybe it’s goldenrod? No again! We can tell just by looking at these plants that they are unlikely to cause allergies. How? Because they have bright, attractive flowers. Plants that have showy flowers have evolved to use their floral display and food rewards to entice animals to visit. The animals, usually insects, become unwitting partners with the plants, helping them to achieve their pollination goals. The flowers’ pollen is heavy and waxy, designed to adhere to a pollinator’s body and highly unlikely to float in the wind. Plants that are wind pollinated, like Ragweed, have light, fluffy pollen that may find its way up your nose or in your eyes.
The flowers are visited by bees, butterflies, moths and beetles.
Sneezeweed flowers seem to be a popular location for meeting members of the opposite sex, at least if you are an insect.
Then why is this plant called Sneezeweed? Because many Native American tribes used dried flowers or leaves of this plant as snuff to induce sneezing, especially as a treatment for colds. Gardeners considering using this plant may find its alternative common name, Helen’s Flower, more appealing. This name is a reflection of Sneezeweed’s genus, Helenium, and a reference to Helen of Troy.
Sneezeweed has chemicals that are toxic to mammals, so it is highly deer resistant. It is native in 47 of the 48 the contiguous United States (New Hampshire is the exception), and much of Canada. Sneezeweed can be found in sunny locations with moist or wet soil, in marshes, along river or stream banks and in wet meadows.
Sneezeweed – Not the most enticing name for such a beautiful flower!