Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Wednesday's Wildflower: Common Sneezeweed

Most of our weekly floral subjects are known by names that elicit pleasing connotations, or are at the very least descriptive of their appearance.

Poor old Sneezeweed doesn't exactly fall into this category, but I would like to highlight its positive attributes, in spite of its unfortunate (albeit appropriate) name.

Common Sneezeweed can be found in every state across our nation, and even throughout Canada. So just about everybody in our country has probably bumped into it at some time or another, even if it didn't really catch your eye.

It likes to grow wherever the soil is damp: stream banks, river edges, moist fields and waste areas.

Sneezeweed begins its bloom in late Summer, and continues well into the Fall.

It is a freely branching perennial, growing from 2-5 feet tall, with alternating, lance-shaped leaves that are usually toothed.

The numerous leaves are mostly sessile, growing out of winged stems.

Its flowers are very distinctive, helping it to stand out among the enormous host of other yellow ray flowers that share its bloom time.

The sunny yellow, lobed rays surround a spherical disc. The rays are somewhat reflexed, further accentuating the flower's central dome.

With a little imagination, the flowers look like ladies twirling in yellow skirts.

Despite its name, allergy sufferers need not balk at this humble plant. For it was named by those who sought it out wanting to sneeze!

Sneezing, historically, has not always been merely associated with nasal irritation and allergies.

To sneeze was considered quite auspicious or even downright dangerous by our anscestors.

Many ancient cultures believed the soul resided in the head, and to sneeze meant that your soul actually left your body. Many superstitions regarding the sneeze arose from this belief.  A body without a soul was sure to die, so most cultures came up with some sort of phrase meant to "bless" the soul and force it to re-enter the sneezer's body. It was considered especially important during the Plague, when violent sneezing was one of the final symptoms preceding death.

Other cultures had less morbid associations with sneezing. To the ancient Romans, Greeks and Egyptians, a sneeze was thought to reveal prophetic truth, whether forecasting misfortune or good luck. Sneezing in the middle of a conversation was supposed to reveal the truth of what was stated.

They also believed that a sneeze purged the body of any evil spirits.

In East Asia, a sneeze means somebody is talking about you. If you sneeze twice, they are saying bad things about you.

In later cultures, forcing a sneeze was desirable to help clear up nasal and sinus congestion, helping to cure colds.

While Sneezeweed is the most memorable common name, it does go by a handful of others, like False Sunflower, Bitterweed, Helen's Flower and Yellow Star.

The Menominee Indians called it "aiatci'a ni'tcikun," which means "sneezing spasmodically."

Its botanical name is Helenium autumnale. The genus Helenium was named for Helen of Troy, whose tears falling to the ground were supposed to sprout into little yellow flowers.

Autumnale simply means "to bloom in Autumn."

There are at least 20 species of Helenium found in North America, and almost 40 worldwide.

One other species found in the eastern US is Helenium flexuosum, or Purple-Headed Sneezeweed.

Prairie Moon Nursery
The plant is essentially toxic, especially to ruminants.

It can also poison humans if consumed in large quantities, and can cause dermatitis in sensitive individuals.

The toxic compound in Sneezeweed is known as helenalin. It is not only toxic to most livestock, but also to insects, fish and worms.

Its most notable medicinal use, of course, was to induce sneezing.

The flowers were dried and powdered into a snuff that was inhaled to treat coughs, colds and headaches.

An infusion of the leaves was used as a laxative. An infusion of the stems was used as a wash to treat fevers.

The flowers were brewed into a tea that was consumed to expel worms.

Past uses for Sneezeweed are interesting enough, but it also holds promise for our future, as helenalin has demonstrated anti-cancer properties.

Due to its rather toxic and unpalatable foliage, there isn't much that eats it.

The blooms, however, are enjoyed by a wide variety of pollinators.

Native bees, flies, beetles and the occasional butterfly can be seen visiting Sneezeweed for nectar and pollen.

A Pennsylvania Leatherwing beetle
Its attractiveness to pollinators, hardiness and unpalatability to deer make it a good choice for native plant gardens, especially rain gardens.

As long as it is planted in moist soil in a sunny location, it is a no-fuss, low maintenance plant. It does, however, tend to grow tall enough to require staking, if you wish for it to remain upright. To remedy this, you can simply prune it back until mid-summer, giving it a shorter, bushier appearance.

If the native varieties aren't showy enough for you, many nurseries carry a colorful array of attractive cultivars.

'Konigstager' from Perennial Pleasures Nursery
The flowers are long-lasting in a floral arrangement, and also hold up well when dried. Just be aware that the dried flowers can live up to their name!

Sneezeweed makes for a lively addition to our abundant spread of late season wildflowers.

Breathe easy, because crisp fall mornings and clear blue skies are upon us!

Be sure to join us for next Wednesday's wildflower!

Click here to read about last week's wildflower, Cardinal Flower

Medicinal information herein is shared strictly for anecdotal purposes. Do not attempt to self-medicate with wild herbs. Please consult a doctor first.

Next flower->


US Forest Service

Plants for a Future

Wildflowers of Tennessee - Jack B. Carman

All About Tennessee Wildflowers - Jan W. Midgley

Cherokee Plants and Their Uses - a 400 Year History - Paul B. Hame. & Mary U. Chiltoskey


  1. Sneezeweed, I have never heard of this before. Great educational article. Thank you for sharing with the Clever Chicks Blog Hop! I hope you’ll join us again next week!

    Kathy Shea Mormino
    The Chicken Chick

  2. Pretty flower, but oh what a name! lol

    Thanks for linking up with Green Thumb Thursday. I hope to see you back this week.