With their immense clusters of sumptuously colored flowers, heleniums bring summer’s warmth to the early-fall border
“OH NO,” I CAN HEAR YOU GROAN. “Please, not more daisies.” Believe me, I sympathize. By this point in the gardening year, you’ve had to endure wave after wave of perky, nearly indistinguishable composites—coreopsis, heliopsis, helianthus, inulas, silphiums, and Lord knows what else. Trust me, though—heleniums are different. First of all, there’s the shape of the flowers. Yes, they do follow the familiar composite pattern of a circular cluster of short disk florets surrounded by elongated, brightly colored ray florets (the “petals”). But a helenium’s disk florets form a kind of rounded knob—subglobose is the technical adjective—that transforms the flower from your typical two-dimensional daisy into something much more interesting and sculptural, while the ray florets (in most varieties), instead of being long and narrow, are short and notched, giving each flower head a trim, elegant look.
Then there are the warm, toasty colors, which strike a harmonious seasonal chord. (Although a few of these robust, hardy—to USDA Zone 3 in most cases—perennials bloom as early as June and July, most wait until August or September.) Sure, there are plenty of yellow-flowered species and hybrids, but there are also deep, smoldering reds, coppery browns, and rich, warm oranges—colors that make you think of sandstone canyons, or Mexican mole sauces. There are even selections in whose ray florets two or more colors blend in hallucinatory swirls, or in which an underlying color is washed and stippled with a contrasting hue. Exciting enough for you?
ORIGINS The genus Helenium contains upwards of 40 perennial and annual species, all of them native to the New World; only a handful, however, have made the leap from the wild to the garden. (Their common name of sneezeweed, by the way, not only grates on the ear, it is also inaccurate, since heleniums are not in the least allergy-provoking, a fact I confirmed by means of a simple experiment involving my highly allergic co-gardener. All in the interests of science, of course.) Of these 40, the most important is the highly variable perennial H. autumnale, an inhabitant of moist soils over a huge stretch of North America, from Quebec to British Columbia and from Florida to Arizona. Growing anywhere from two to five feet, it bears narrow, toothed leaves and one- to two-inch-wide deep yellow flowers. Its horticultural significance derives not from its own fairly modest charms, but rather from its status as the primary ancestor of the dozens of opulent hybrids currently available; in its various wild forms, H. autumnale is likely to appeal only to the most die-hard native-plant enthusiasts.
There are at least two other perennial species, though, that are attractive enough for border use. Helenium hoopesii, native to the Rocky Mountains west to Oregon and California, grows from two to three feet tall and bears three-inch, deep yellow-orange flowers with straplike, slightly drooping rays in late May or early June—exceptionally early for a helenium. The foliage is distinct as well, being gray green, entire (that is, untoothed), and with individual leaves up to one foot long.
The other is H. bigelovii, a West Coast species most often encountered in the selection called ‘The Bishop’. Whereas the wild form of H. bigeloii can grow as tall as four feet, ‘The Bishop’ stays a compact 28 inches, and sports short, deep yellow rays surrounding a blackish brown center. Most references list H. bigelovii as being much less hardy than other heleniums—only to Zone 6 or 7—but I suspect this is a case of limited anecdotal information getting passed from book to book without confirmation from gardeners who have actually grown the plant.
HYBRIDS Pleasant as H. hoopesii and H. bigelovii may be, it’s the hybrids that really get your juices flowing. As with the Michaelmas daisies, border phlox, and bedding penstemons, here again we have the case of a group of plain American wildflowers crossing the Atlantic and coming back fancy. Whether you consider the changes to be an improvement or a corruption depends, I suppose, on how you feel about “improved” flowers in general. Personally, I don’t see how anyone can object when the result is a wider palette of more vivid colors, a longer bloom period, and a sturdier overall constitution, but then I’ve always been a fan of artifice.
Although the British have contributed a modest number of hybrids (Blooms of Bressingham’s coppery red ‘Coppelia’, for example), the majority have originated in Continental nurseries, particularly in Germany and the Netherlands. Among the Olympians of helenium breeding, the preeminent figure is the German nurseryman Karl Foerster, who, over a career spanning more than six decades, released some 73 cultivars remarkable for their vigor, large flowers, and tolerance of (relatively) drier soil. Sadly, most of Foerster’s selections have disappeared over the years, but some are still available, including ‘Goldrausch’, ‘Kanaria’, ‘Konigstiger’, ‘Zimbelstern’, and my favorite, the brownish orange ‘Septemberfuchs’. (For descriptions of these and other cultivars, see “Heleniums at a Glance” on page 43.) Only slightly less venerable is Foerster’s countryman, Gustav Deutschmann, who has given us ‘Baudirektor Linne’, ‘Waltraut’, and the admirably compact ‘Kupferzwerg’ and ‘Rubinzwerg’, the latter a true gem in rich, dark reddish brown. Among Dutch breeders, Bonne Ruys deserves mention for his classic, reddish bronze ‘Moerheim Beauty’, an early bloomer that will reflower later in the season if scrupulously deadheaded. With luck (and a bit of prompting), American nurseries will soon start importing the sturdy new plants of another Dutch breeder, Inez ‘Moerheim Beauty’ with Crocosmia xcrocosmiiflora Arnold, whose hybrids include the bicolor, gaillardia-like ‘Gay-Go-Round’ and ‘Ring of Fire’, the sumptuous crimson-brown ‘Potter’s Wheel’, and the yellow, large-flowered ‘Summer Circle’.
Heleniums on the Web
Martin Hughes-Jones, owner of the nursery Sampford Shrubs in Devon. England, and curator of the U.K. National Plant Collection of heleniums, has created a highly informative web site devoted to these plants. Topics include wild species, culture, extant cultivars (with excellent photographs), history, and garden use. Visit www.helenium.net
CARE AND CULTIVATION Heleniums aren’t fussy plants, but neither are they the sort of perennial you can just stick in the ground and forget about. They need full sun and fertile soil for strong growth and abundant bloom, and a reasonably steady supply of moisture. (Although, as I mentioned above, the Foerster hybrids are able to tolerate occasional dryness, xeric they aren’t.) This means they will need to be fed in spring when they are coming into growth, either with the organic matter of your choice (compost, rotted manure) or a fertilizer with a slightly elevated phosphorus ratio, and that they will need to be watered in dry spells. Thus cared for, they can stay put for many years. If your plants start to look spindly, however, you’ll need to divide them in early spring and replant the divisions in enriched soil.
It pains me to admit it, but heleniums produce such massive heads of flowers that some of the taller cultivars need to be staked to prevent them from flopping. If staking is a chore you can’t or won’t deal with, you can simply limit yourself to those selections (especially those cultivars whose names end in -zwerg, the German word for dwarf) that top off at two to three feet. Another way to solve the flopping problem is to pinch back the new growth by half in late spring, which will produce shorter, sturdier plants (but will also delay flowering by a couple of weeks).
USING HELENIUMS IN THE BORDER In my own garden, I’ve found that heleniums combine brilliantly with just about anything in the deep blue or purple range—for example asters (‘Veilchenkonigin’ and ‘Violetta’), monkshoods, leadwort (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides), and delphiniums in their second blooming—but this is hardly an original discovery. Way back when, Gertrude Jekyll used big drifts of what she called Helenium pumilum (probably a dwarf, early-blooming form of H. autumnale) in the blue, yellow, and white border she designed for the garden at Presaddfed in northern Wales. Here, the blues come mainly from delphiniums, Anchusa azurea, and Salvia patens; the whites from snapdragons, foxgloves, and Clematis recta; and the other yellows from achilleas, coreopsis, marigolds, oenotheras, snapdragons, and rudbeckias. Very zingy.
Another possibility occurs to me. If some people can have an aster border (a certain domestic goddess and media mogul comes to mind), why not a helenium border? Besides a generous assortment of heleniums in yellow, orange, red, and brown, it would need, I think, lots of grasses—selections of miscanthus (especially stripy cultivars like ‘Strictus’ and ‘Goldfeder’), calamagrostis (C. xacutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, appropriately), Stipa tenuissima, and maybe even some of the bronze carexes, if your climate is mild enough. Then how about tossing in some late-blooming kniphofias (perhaps ‘Bressingham Comet’ or ‘Cobra’), some goldenrods, bronze fennel, and a scattering of Lilium henryi? You can practically feel the heat. H
For sources of plants featured in this article, turn to page 79.