In late spring, my garden is more Monet than Gauguin.
My perennial borders bloom in a palette of pink, purple, soft yellow and white, punctuated by fresh green foliage, similar to the color scheme of impressionist Monet’s garden palette. By midsummer, the visual composition changes and becomes as bold as one of Gauguin’s Tahitian landscapes. Intense, bright yellows, oranges and reds explode across the garden like fireworks.
I’d like to take credit because I choose the plants and place them in the garden, but in many respects, color is determined by what blooms when. It strikes me that more pastels are found among spring-blooming perennials than in summer and fall.
Lately I’ve gravitated toward yellow- and orange-blooming perennials, especially helenium. These perennials are often under-utilized and generally passed over in favor of the wide variety of rudbeckias and gaillardias now available.
Helenium is sometimes called sneezeweed because the Cherokee tribe often used the dried flowers as snuff. It’s also known as “Helen’s Flower,” for the legend that flowers grew where Helen of Troy’s tears fell and touched the ground.
They need full sun and a well-drained location that’s kept uniformly well-watered. Dry soil causes these plants to wilt. Sometimes they’ll revive with watering; other times it’s the kiss of death.
Helenium autumnale is extremely cold hardy to zone 4. Older varieties tended to get leggy and flopped over without staking. Newer types have stronger stems and make excellent cut flowers. Deadheading flowers encourages more blooms.
“Dancing Flames” has vivid orange petals gathered like a skirt or tutu around a golden cone. Butterflies love the blooms that appear on a plant that can reach three feet high. Flowers turn golden yellow as they mature.
Blooms of Bressingham’s “Mardi Gras” has a tie-dyed effect with deep yellow petals splashed with orange-red and a dark brown cone. Plants reach three feet high. “Sombrero,” one of the “Mariachi” dwarf series of heleniums, is pure sunshine yellow with a yellow cone, while “Salsa” is vibrant red and orange.
“Red Jewel” is prized for its petals of red, yellow and orange clustered around brown and yellow button cones. Stems are long and graceful. The unusual “Carnival” has drumstick-shaped petals that are yellow on top and orange on the bottom.
Heleniums are easy to propagate and benefit from division every three or four years. However, do not divide the plant in autumn because the divisions may not survive winter. Wait until growth appears in the spring before digging and dividing.