If your garden needs a lift now that autumn is drawing in, Heleniums will add sunshine to your late summer borders.
The daisy-like flowers on upright, branching stems have large brown centres, ringed with long petals, which range from pure yellow, through bright orange to deep red, with some two-tone versions combining those colours. They can provide months of beauty as some varieties start flowering in late June and can still be in flower in late October.
They are hardy, easy to grow and are unaffected by most pests and diseases. Not only that but they are incredibly attractive to pollinating insects. The flowers can be a magnet for butterflies such as the Ringlet, Comma, Common Blue, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Small Copper and Meadow Brown. I have watched a Ringlet, bee and hoverfly all enthusiastically trying to feed on one flower head at the same time. The butterfly and bee then followed each other round and round the chocolate centre of the flower.
Heleniums look best in a natural, prairie-style planting scheme, where multiple plants of the same kind are grouped together to produce blocks of colourful flowers amongst swathes of grasses. However, if you have little space they will also grow in pots and I have witnessed that butterflies will still find them when planted individually.
Heleniums need an open sunny position in moisture-retentive soil. They can withstand low temperatures and are hardy across the UK. They are clump forming and plants can be divided in spring, just as they start growing.
The species originates from North America. The plant’s common name - Sneezeweed - is believed to be derived from the former use of the dried leaves to make a snuff, which was inhaled by native Americans to promote sneezing and rid the body of evil spirits. The most widely distributed, yellow-flowered variety, Helenium autumnale, was introduced to Europe in 1729. Many varieties have been bred since then. Heights vary and taller varieties might need to be staked or put at the back of the border.
'Sahin's Early Flowerer’ is one of the most popular varieties and is one of the longest flowering. The metre-high stems hold flowers that vary in colour from reddish-orange to yellow from early July to November. ‘El Dorado’ is also long-flowering in yellow. ‘Waltraut’ opens yellow and deepens to golden brown. ‘Fata Morgana’ has upswept petals with orange undersides, while ‘Moerheim Beauty’ has red petals that hang downwards.
Deadheading Heleniums regularly can promote more flowers but consider leaving some seed heads for the birds to eat during winter.
Enjoy a colourful autumn and let us know which butterflies you spot.
The Secret Gardener