If you enjoy growing new and unusual perennials, take a look at the yellow-flowering Fall Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) for cheerful late-season blooms. Actually not new at all (only at nurseries), sneezeweed is a native plant that grows wild in wet areas across most of New England, providing nectar and pollen to butterflies and late-season pollinators.
Although a wetland plant in the wild, sneezeweed doesn’t require wet soil, and really shines in decent garden soils that aren’t too terribly dry. Long-blooming, sneezeweed (also called Helen’s Flower) begins blooming in August and continues right until a killing frost here in central MA (Zone 5).
And despite its name, Sneezeweed does NOT cause hay fever! Its pollen is heavy and pollinated by bees rather than wind (which carries lighter-weight allergenic pollen dust).
The native yellow-flowering Helenium autumnale is still very hard to find at nurseries (at least in New England), available only at Project Native (please hit Reply if you know of others!), although hybrids bred in Europe are beginning to become widely available in nurseries. The hybrids are bright and showy, usually with flaming orange-yellow flowers.
A note on hybrids and cultivars: On my own Massachusetts habitat farm, I’m moving from growing cultivars of natives (nativars) to growing locally-native plants — this is helping to maintain native strains with adaptations to local climate and co-evolved wildlife. Most sneezeweed cultivars such as ‘Mardi Gras‘ and ‘Moerheim Beauty‘ originate from European breeding programs. Depending on their seed provenance, they may contain some native genetic materials, but because they’re selected from plants growing in faraway garden climates, they may not be best adapted to local conditions, and there is no guarantee that they have the characteristics that local wildlife rely upon. Read more about the complicated issues of choosing native plant hybrids for wildlife value.