Purple-headed Sneezeweed

Purple-headed sneezeweed (Helenium flexuosum) is a native wildflower in most of the eastern U.S. Although it can be a beneficial and unique addition to pollinator gardens, many people avoid this plant because of its common name. So, let’s address that concern to start with because allergy sufferers have nothing to fear from this plant.

Once upon a time, sneezeweeds were dried, ground, and snorted as snuff. As you might imagine, this could result in violent sneezing fits and the common name “sneezeweed” was born. However, unless you are intentionally snorting the dried plant material up your nose, it isn’t likely to make you sneeze so there is no reason for allergy sufferers to avoid it. In fact, historically, sneezeweeds were used for medicinal purposes by several Native American tribes. More recently, the seeds of purple-headed sneezeweed and common sneezeweed have been studied for potential antimicrobial properties.

Despite its name, purple-headed sneezeweed isn’t likely to induce allergy-related sneezing attacks. Instead it can make a great addition to wetter pollinator gardens because its bright yellow flowers are attractive to many species of bees and butterflies. Photo credit: Doug McGrady, cc-by 2.0

Purple-headed sneezeweed grows naturally in sunny, moist to wet areas. As long as its soil and sun conditions are met, it can be found in both disturbed areas such as the side of a road and less disturbed areas such as a wet meadow or along the side of a creek or lake. It can also be grown in rain gardens or as part of a pollinator garden where the soil never gets really dry.

Like other members of the aster family, purple-headed sneezeweed flowers are composites of ray flowers (what we usually call “petals”) and disk flowers (the center or cone). The ray flowers or “petals” are bright yellow and remind me of what I imagine a heart would look like if it was drawn with three lobes instead of two. The shape is pretty distinctive and I immediately start thinking sneezeweed when I see it. These bright yellow ray flowers are not fertile and serve only to attract pollinators. The disk flowers are the fertile flowers and are the ones that produce nectar, pollen, and eventually seeds. Purple-headed sneezeweed gets the first part of its common name because its disk flowers are a deep maroon or purple color, while most other sneezeweed species have yellowish disk flowers.

Purple-headed sneezeweed blooms throughout the summer and fall (June through October in Kentucky). Often the plant will branch and produce multiple quarter to half dollar-sized flowerheads. Many different species of bees and butterflies are attracted the flowers. Purple-headed sneezeweed is also a host plant for the dainty sulphur butterfly (Nathalis iole) as well as several species of moths.

The plant is relatively deer resistant because its foliage tastes bitter and contains a chemical that can be toxic to mammalian herbivores if ingested in large quantities. Therefore, it is not a good idea to plant purple-headed sneezeweed in a pasture that will be grazed by cattle or horses, although they tend to avoid the plant just like the deer.

If you are planting purple-headed sneezeweed in your garden, then choose a sunny area that stays consistently on the wetter side. A little occasional standing water is ok, but the plant will wilt fast if the soil dries out completely. You may also want to plant something in front of it, because the lower leaves have a tendency to dry up. Trimming the plant back by approximately half its height in the late spring can also encourage it to branch and produce more flowers. In the right spot, purple-headed sneezeweed can be a great summer and fall food source for butterflies and bees. Don’t let its common name scare you off and consider giving purple-headed sneezeweed a try if you need a relatively short plant that will thrive in wetter conditions.

This article was part of Shannon’s original Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blog which evolved into the blog for Backyard Ecology.

Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.

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