Sneezeweed is a native erect perennial forb growing from 2 to 6 feet high on angular winged stems that have short hairs on the angles. The Sneezeweeds (32 in the world, 18 in North America) mostly all have winged stems, some are annuals. A key such as that provided by Ref. #W7 should be consulted for differences.
The leaves are plentiful, alternate, oblong, lanceolate on the lower and mid-stem and then to more elliptic in shape near the top, about 4x longer than wide with pointed tips, dotted with glands and with irregular small teeth on the margins. Leaf bases touch the stem or clasp, joining and forming the wing on the stem angles. Leaf surfaces are usually hairy. The more basal leaves are usually withered away by flowering time.
The floral array consists of branched clusters composed of several composite flower heads; each cluster is arranged in a pyramidal array, each flower on its own hairy stalk. These branch from the upper stem and from the upper leaf axils.
The flower heads are 1 to 2 inches wide, composed of an outer group of 8 to 21 fertile (sometimes sterile) yellow ray florets. The rays droop, are widest at the tips and the tips have a double notch creating a 3-lobe or 3-toothed appearance. The central disc has a large number of tubular disc florets with yellow to yellow-brown corollas, about 1/8 inch across, opening first from the edge. These are perfect and fertile. There are five stamens that are clustered tight against the style which is exserted from the corolla when the floret opens and has a branched tip. The disc section is usually domed in appearance, sometimes flattened on top center. Around the outsider of the flower head are series of green, linear, twisty reflexed phyllaries.
Seed: Fertile disc florets produce a 1 to 2 mm long dry hairy 4 to 5 angled seed (a cypsela) without fluffy pappus but with the remains of the corolla tube appearing as bristle-like appendages. Seeds should germinate when planted in a warm location, but need light for germination.
Habitat: Sneezeweed grows in full sun in wet to moist areas such as wet prairies, meadows, stream banks, pond perimeters and roadsides. It is not tolerant of drought. It has a fibrous root system. The flowers are showy and attract butterflies. As this is a late flowering plant, some early June cut-back will encourage more stems and more flowers and will result in less height for a more manageable plant. Clumps should be divided every 3 to 4 years.
Names: The genus Helenium contains 32 species of Sneezeweeds and is thought to have been named by Linnaeus for Helen of Troy. (see comments of Pliny, at the page bottom.) The species, autumnale, is 'of Autumn', referring to the main flowering time. The author name for the plant classification from 1753 - 'L.' refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. As to the common name, see notes at page bottom.
Comparisons: Due to the unique shape of the ray flowers and the winged stem, this will not confuse if in Minnesota. There is a Purple-headed Sneezeweed, H. flexuosum, where, as the name implies, the disc florets are purple, but that plant is introduced, not native and has not been reported and confirmed in Minnesota. In a few other parts of the U.S. a very close-looking species is found - Helenium virginicum, where the basal leaves are usually present at flowering time and the mid-stem leaves usually do not have teeth.
Above: 1st photo - The floral array is a branched cluster of several flower heads, each on a hairy stalk. 2nd photo - Stem leaves have bases which join the stem and descend forming a wing. 3rd photo - Upper stem leaves are more elliptic in shape and do not form the wings.
Below: 2nd photo - Mid-stem leaves have pointed tips and irregular teeth.
Below: The central domed disc has a large number of florets with yellow to yellow-brown corolla tubes, about 1/8 inch across. These are perfect and fertile, opening from the edge and moving to the center.
Below: 1st photo - The outer ray florets droop and are wider at the notched tip creating a 3-lobed effect. 2nd photo - Under the head are green, linear, twisty reflexed phyllaries.
Notes: Eloise Butler first brought Sneezeweed into the Garden on Sept. 20, 1907 when she transplanted some from the area of the Lake Street Bridge (Minneapolis). In Sept. 1908 she brought in more from Mahtomedi, MN.; again in Sept. 1910 she brought in plants from Washburn Park, Minneapolis; and on May 12, 1914 she obtained 100 clumps from near the ferry at Ft. Snelling, Minneapolis and found more at Twin Lake that August. 1917 saw more as did 1925 and '27. Martha Crone also planted Sneezeweed in 1933, '35, '36, '45 and '47. It was still present at the time of her 1951 Garden census and seems to come an go periodically.
Helenium autumnale is found throughout North America except the far north and the Canadian Maritime Provinces. Within Minnesota it is found in most counties with widely scattered exceptions. There are a few varieties of this species published by various botanists over the years but they are not recognized in Minnesota or by Flora of North America (Ref. #W7). This is the only species of Helenium native to the state. There are numerous species of Helenium in both the New World and the Old, most all with some variation of "Sneezeweed" in their common name.
Uses: It is reported that the dried disc florets were powdered and used for snuff although I have no direct reference for that other than Eloise Butler and also that George (Ref. #6b) reports that the pollen when inhaled, causes violent sneezing and that the powdered flower heads were used in medicine for that purpose and from that comes the common name.
Eloise Butler wrote: "Helenium autumnale is a glorious, late composite in rich, low land. From now on it will unfold its golden disks as long as any flower endures. It blossoms freely and often attains a height of six feet. The soft yellow ray petals are divided like those of coreopsis and surround a convex disk. The leaves are pale green, just the right shade to harmonize with the flowers. They run down on the angles of the stem, making narrow, winglike projections. If the leaves are dried and pulverized they make a titillating powder as efficacious as snuff for those who enjoy sneezing, hence its common name, sneezeweed."
"Florists cultivate the plant and have produced from it varieties. It is excellent for formal gardens on account of its height, refined color and its late, profuse blooms. It never fails to respond under transplanting. A colony of sneezeweed in the wild garden of two successive seasons which was lifted when in full bloom has repaid the labor by continuing to bloom at its appointed time". Published Sept. 3, 1911, Minneapolis Sunday Tribune - entire article.
Toxicity: George (Ref. #6b) reports that the plant is poisonous to browsing mammals, particularly the flowers and a small amount taken by a milk cow will taint the milk. Animals usually avoid it.
Comments of Pliny the Elder from Natural History, ca before 79CE: "Helenium, which had its origin in the tears of Helen, is believed to preserve physical charm and to keep the fresh complexion of our womenfolk unimpaired - whether of their face or the rest of their body. Moreover, women think that they acquire a kind of aura of attractiveness and sex appeal by its use. People attribute an exhilarating effect to this plant when taken in wine - the power that nepenthes had of driving away sorrow; Homer sang the praises of the plant. Helenium also has a very sweet juice. The root, taken in water while fasting, is good for asthma. It is also taken in wine for snake-bites."
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"