Heleniums are velvet-textured flowers with soft middles ringed by dazzling petals. They come in shades of orange, yellow and mahogany red and their bright-green foliage and daisy-like flowers provide a warm rush of colour in mid and late summer.
There are an awful lot of varieties derived from the North American species - but most need moisture-retentive soil to flourish and flower well.
Some are vintage varieties from the 1930s via the Continent and, consequently, they often have rather unpronounceable names. But others are very new. Most of the oldest ones are probably seedlings that popped up on their own - for these plants are highly popular with bees.
Heights also vary and one of the problems with taller varieties of heleniums is their tendency to produce ragged leaves before the flowers appear, so many need to be camouflaged behind another plant. The secret is to choose your varieties well.
Where to plant
Heleniums need an open sunny position in good soil. They will not grow in waterlogged conditions.
How to plant
Add lots of compost when planting to increase moisture. This will allow light, sandy soils to retain water and open up clay soils - thereby improving drainage.
Keep new plants well watered and water all plants in dry spells. The flowers curl and the foliage flags if they are too dry.
Stake taller varieties with hazel or canes and string.
You can pick out the growing tips in May to get bushier plants - this is a useful technique with younger plants.
When to take cuttings
You can take helenium tip cuttings from the new growth in April.
When to cut back
Some people also give heleniums a Chelsea Chop, but only do this on deep, fertile soil. The chop delays flowering time - so they perform later.
Deadhead heleniums constantly to promote more flowers. This will keep your plants in flower for months and, even if they have a lull, they will re-bloom later.
When to divide
Heleniums are best divided in spring just as they start into growth. Do not divide them in the autumn because winter wet can kill your divisions.
How to divide
To divide heleniums use two forks back to back to part established clumps, using the material on the outside because it’s the most vigorous plant material.
You can divide down to a single rosette if you need to. Heleniums are robust growers and will make a substantial plant fairly quickly - even from one rosette.
Heleniums associate well with later-flowering perennials and grasses. My favourite combination is Agastache 'Blue Fortune' planted with red or orange heleniums. But they grow with a wide variety of plants and these include crocosmias, bronze fennel, Verbena bonariensis, many taller grasses, warmly coloured dahlias like 'David Howard', veronicastrums and monardas.
Other daisies in varying colours also work well as long as they are taller and airier. But do be bold and use large blocks of the same helenium - if you have room.
'Sahin's Early Flowerer' AGM
The best and earliest helenium for garden use is a long-flowering, metre-high hybrid called 'Sahin's Early Flowerer'. It was found growing in a Dutch nurseryman’s trial (Kaas Sahin) and came to notice because it flowered for a much longer period than the other seedlings. Bob Brown (of Cotswold Garden Plants) asked to have the plant and christened it after Mr Sahin. It has hybrid blood and it was the only helenium I could grow successfully in my dry garden. So this is the staring point for all helenium growers. It also dazzles in a border because each orange flower is different from the next.
(120 cm) - fiery lightening bolt
A deep yellow marked in red.
(115 cm ) - dancing flames
Orange-red streaked with yellow - starts in the last few days August.
(105 cm) - flaming wheel
Self-supporting yellow - shaded lightly in red-orange.
Karl Foerster 1951
Bred in the 1930s by Ruys but still a favourite with red petals that hang downwards.
(95 cms) - little fox
Deep red and gold bicolour. Late flowerer, starting in mid August.
(65 cm) - ruby dwarf
Bushy plants with ruby-red flowers.
Modern all-yellow, late variety.
'Ring of Fire'
Semi-double orange and yellow flowers - with two layers of petals.
Shaggy orange flowers early in the season.
(105 cm) - red-haired Katy
A strong red.
Where to buy
From the Two National Collection Holders:
Special Perennials - www.specialperennials.com
Sampford Shrubs - www.helenium.net