Legend has it that the Helenium, a flower of the Greek god Helios, sprang from the tears of Helen of Troy. Helen's flower it is then; and I'll put aside the name sneezeweed as an insult to a pretty plant with no connection to hay fever.
The beauty of Helenium is found not in its plain, narrow leaves but in the form of its five-centimetre-wide flowers—broad, fringed, silk-textured petals flaring down from a small-domed centre. Through August and September, these open by the hundreds near the tops of the 1.5-metre-tall stems. The effect is a mass of colour, not solid or static like some chrysanthemums, but shifting like a flock of birds as pliable stems move with the wind. Set Helenium among clumps of silver grass (Miscanthus), warm-toned grasses such as cream and green variegated M. sinensis ‘Cabaret' or the horizontally banded M. s. ‘Zebrinus' (Zone 5) for more waves and ripples; plan for bushy plants such as catmint, hardy salvias or fall stonecrop in the foreground to hide its bare nether parts.
And what colours: not only the expected sunflower yellow, but deep burnished red, bronze-orange, two-toned crimson and yellow—shades of late summer. Cultivars (all Zone 4) include H. bigelovii ‘The Bishop' (deep gold), H. ‘Moerheim Beauty' (rusty red fading to copper), H. ‘Bruno' (mahogany brown) and the self-descriptive H. ‘Rotgold' syn. H. ‘Red and Gold' and H. ‘Butterpat'. Mixed with the mauves and magentas of phloxes, bee balm, mallows and coneflowers, Helenium stands out in jarring clashes. But there is no shortage of suitable company for one of the best late-summer perennials. Team Helen's flower with the creamy plumes of milky mugwort (Artemisia lactiflora, Zone 3) or the exotic scarlet flowers of Crocosmia ‘Lucifer' (Zone 5). Helen's flower also consorts with the red, orange and apricot of red-hot pokers (Kniphofia cvs., Zone 5), the muted blue of globe thistles and the misty lavender of Russian sage to form sumptuous late summer/early autumn scenes.
Several late-blooming flowers of the sun are easily raised from seed. Sown in pots indoors in late March or April, seeds of Heliopsis ‘Golden Double Hybrids' or H. helianthoides ‘Sommersonne' syn. ‘Summer Sun' germinate at room temperature in about two weeks. Grown in a sunny window and set out in the garden in late May, they may well bloom that summer. Timed the same, a mixed packet of Helenium, such as ‘Sunshine Hybrid', will yield a range of yellow, mahogany and two-toned flowers. Favourite shades can eventually be increased by division.
To reach their full decorative potential, big, easy, late-summer daisies need organically enriched soil and lots of sunshine. Bulky plants, they have a correspondingly big appetite and thirst. Turn lots of humus (in the form of compost, well-rotted leaves or manure) into the soil to boost nutrients and act as a water-holding sponge. Mulch around their roots with a similar mixture after an early summer downpour to ensure that moisture is held in the ground. During times of drought, a deep soaking—2.5 centimetres or so of water every seven to 10 days—will see them through.
Maintenance is simple. Cut back the mass of stalks in late fall, or leave them standing as natural bird feeders. In any case, sharpen the secateurs and put on the gloves, as it's a tough job. In very early spring, just as growth starts, divide the clumps that appear to be crowded with too many weak shoots, or when the quantity and quality of flowers have declined. Reduce clumps to no more than three to five shoots or you'll be at it again before long. When division is long overdue, big, old clumps will grow much better if one-third to one-half of the weakest shoots—shorter and thinner than the rest—are cut right out at ground level in late spring.
Photo: Heliopsis helianthoides 'Incomparabilis'