Native Plant Spotlight: Sunflower Everlasting


For today’s edition of Native Plant Spotlight, I actually had originally miss-identified for quite a while.  But now I know better, and so, a good topic for this spotlight.  About this time of year I see blooming along my bike path to work/running path network a tall, yellow, sunflower family flower.  It seems to like sun, but is found in partial shade, medium, yet disturbed soil and will grow into respectable colonies of many meters in length in some spots.  I admired, but never looked close- and so- assumed it was Jerusalem artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus.

But what should I have learned about assuming by now?

See, from afar H. tuberosus and Sunflower Everlasting (or oxeye or false sunflower, but I think Sunflower Everlasting sounds divine) aka Heliopsis helanthoides look very similar.  I had to inspect the disk flower (the center portion) to really see the difference.  H. tuberosus has a small, flatter disk in comparison to H. helianthoides and H. helianthoides has a remarkably beautiful disk flower.  Observe:


Each one is separate and identifiable, unlike so many other sunflowers/aster family members with the center just jam-packed.  You can see that each disk flower is actually a flower.  And for that, I really wanted to give this plant a shout-out.

Heliopsis species fall into the DYC (damn yellow composite) family, meaning my ID may be off- and apparently they can cross pollinate, causing even the most stalwart botanists to pull their hair out.  But upon cross-checking to other likely culprits (the aforementioned H. tubersus and the swamp sunflower, Helianthus angustifolius)

Technically, I’ve read in my Wildflowers of New England guide that it is not native to my Massachusetts, but is native to the rest of eastern US.  And so I see that as splitting hairs.  Is it forcing out other natives?  Probably not terribly.  Does it spread with reckless abandon?  Doesn’t seem to.  And so I forgive it.

Cheers sunflower everlasting!




Native Plant Spotlight: Sneezeweed


“And here is where I put the sneezeweed…”

“You just planted what?”

That, I believe, was the reaction at my glee this past spring- upon my planting 7 plugs of Helenium autumnale – Common Sneezeweed.

Maybe I should have used the Latin name.  Sounds much prettier and wouldn’t have everyone preemptively reaching for a box of tissues.

Despite it’s name, Sneezeweed is not a source of fall allergies.  When the flower is dried and crushed, in an effort to extract the seeds, then it is very sneeze-inducing.  That seems to be the origin of it’s common name.  A member of the sunflower/aster family, it has many tell tale features of the family, but is quite unique in its own way.


The central disk is globular, much like a coneflower, but less than an inch across.  Around 10 ray flowers come off and away at the base in a triple lobed pattern.  Like a triple heart!

Flowers branch off the main stem, often times dozens at a time.  In my reading about sneezeweed it seems that they can grow very tall, (mine are about 3 feet tall- it’s their first year and I didn’t site them optimally)  but cutting them back in June can induce a shorter and more branched habit, which may be more conducive to the garden setting.

Sneezeweed can be found in every continental US state (except Vermont according to this map?  I find that unlikely) and throughout much of Canada.


In the wild, sneezeweed prefers a moist environment and full sun.  It will grow fine in a garden with well amended soil.  I started these this year from small live plants (plugs from Prairie Moon), watering them often in their first months of life.  We had a few short spells of drought, but a decently wet summer, which I’m sure helped them establish.  They always looked hale and hearty- unlike some rose milkweed next to it, which often looked thirsty- so their water requirement isn’t extreme.  My site, along a sunny side yard gets about 6 hours of morning to early afternoon sun.  So maybe they’d be more robust if slightly wetter and a few more hours of sun, but they seem to be ok.

There are a few cultivated nativars of sneezeweed, with shorter habits and different coloration out there.  However, in some cases cultivars are not as attractive to pollinators as the native version- so if creating a healthy habitat for wildlife is one of your goals, stick to the original.

As cut flowers they last well, I brought many inside as part of a small garden bouquet and they look unchanged 4 days later.

Sneezeweed can be a beautiful native addition to the fall garden, presenting a different look than the goldenrods and asters that typify this time of year.

Top Five Annual Flowers to Improve Soil


As a gardener you quickly realize how intricately connected the health of what you’re growing is linked to the health of your soil.  Soil rich in organic matter, with balanced pH, minerals and a thriving microbial and fungal community will deliver vibrant plants.

Typically, I prefer perennial flowers.

If sited in your garden correctly (that is, the environment, sun exposure and moisture and general soil attributes), after a little babying the first year- perennials can grow with minimal input from us for years.  And after a few years, you can even divide them to fill in other areas of your yard.  Bonus plants!  Plus, this way I can chose native plants that will serve my area and wildlife best.

But I’m not talking about perennials today.  Today I’m talking about annuals. 

I generally prefer annual plants that readily self-seed.  See, I don’t like spending a lot of money at the garden store on something that will die towards October.  Especially if I’m not eating it.  (I spend plenty of money at the garden store on other things!)  And while I start some plants indoors by seed, I don’t have a huge space or set up to accommodate starting flats and flats of annuals from seed, like my mom can.

Also, I really want my annuals to work for it.  Not just be pretty, or serve as nice cut flowers or feed pollinators and wildlife.  I like annuals that just by physically being there is improving my garden.  I clearly demand a lot.

So I put together this list of no-fuss annual flowers you can plant that have an amazing quality about them- they can actually improve your soil while they are growing, looking beautiful and helping pollinators.  Most of these self seed decently too in my 5b garden- or it’s easy to pick a few seeds and scatter them around while expecting a few to come again the next year.

Let’s get to that list!

1.  Sunflowers


Sunflowers are super at improving soil.  Why?  Their huge root system.  Sunflower roots reach deep into the ground to access water and support their massive height and weight.  All those roots mean that organic material (the roots themselves) are distributed far and wide throughout the soil.  When the plants die come frost-time, all that root material stays in the ground and will decompose over winter.  What I typically do is cut the plants down at ground level, never pulling the root ball out so as to preserve that material in the ground.  Then, as an added bonus I’ll strip many of the leaves and leave them laying on the ground as mulch.  It’s not the prettiest- but nothing is super pretty in November and it’s my backyard.  In addition to serving as critical nesting and protection for ground dwelling animals and bees, the sunflower leaves are full of minerals that have bioaccumulated within the plant- those minerals have been brought up from taht deep and extensive root system.  Finally, I”ll cut off most of the spent flower heads and chuck them on the ground too.  We’ve had sunflowers for years now and I’ve never planted a one- the birds and animals disperse the seeds through their foraging- and I’ve thrown a few flower heads around and plants always emerge from those sites.

2.  Sweet Pea


Photo credit: Annie’s Annuals

Sweet Pea makes the list for it’s nitrogen fixing properties.  Plants in the legume family all fix their own nitrogen out of the air due to the symbiotic relationship they have with Rhizobium, bacterial that set up shop in root nodules in legume family plants.  There are lots of pretty legume family plants to chose from, but sweet peas are beautiful in a classic sense and can be at home in any garden.  My neighbors would never care what I have growing in my front yard, but for some reason some folks neighbors do care (don’t they have other things to worry about?) and if that’s the case, beautiful sweet peas snaking up your trellis or fence is a bit more sightly than a mass of scarlet runner beans.  At the end of the season be sure to leave the root systems in the ground- cut the plant at ground level.  All that nitrogen can stay in the soil for the next year.  And the plant makes an excellent addition to your compost pile.

3.  Sweet Alyssum


I’m including alyssum not for what it does to the soil per se, but how it can protect the soil.  One component of healthy soil is retaining moisture.  High percentage of organic matter (6-8%) helps with this, as does a top layer of mulch.  But the concept of a living mulch should not be overlooked.  A living mulch is basically a ground cover that shields the soil from sunlight, keeping moisture in and weeds out.  Alyssum is low- generally never more than a few inches high.  It’s easy to pull out or push aside, should you want to plant into your living mulch.  I find that it self seeds, but is fairly patchy, so I will sprinkle more seeds around to help it out.  It comes in so many colors too- it can easily compliment any garden.

4.  Borage


Image Credit: World of Flowering Plants

Borage is another prolific self-seeder.  It can border on a weed but it’s easy to pull and if it pops up in the grass, mowing it down will stop it in it’s tracks, so it’s hardly a bother.  Borage, like sunflowers have a deep root, and thus like sunflowers will leave a massive root system in the soil come the end of season and can bioaccumulate minerals from deep underground.  Borage’s root is more like a taproot and thus can be thought of as a ‘biodrill’.  Biodrilling is the concept of breaking up tough, particularly clay soils & compacted soil using a strong taproot.  Daikon radish is very adept at this and is often used as a cover crop for this purpose.  The taproots allow water to better penetrate the soil and make it easier for next year’s plants roots to go deep into the soil- literally following in the footsteps of last season’s taproot.  Borage has lots of other great characteristics as well that I’m not even going into here (edible leaves, flowers, companion crop) so if you’re interested, seriously check it out.

5.  Bachelors Buttons


Image Credit: The Spruce

Bachelor Buttons make this list mainly in their no-fuss nature.  Bachelor buttons are often added to flowering cover crop seed mixes because they don’t require much water, can withstand lots of conditions and quickly leaf out.  This quick to add leafy material quality is what makes bachelor buttons a nice ‘living mulch’.  If you need to cover some soil for a few months, want it to look pretty, and then want to till that all under again, look to bachelors buttons.  The small and thin leaves rapidly break down, making it an ideal flowering cover crop that can be quickly and easily tilled back into the soil.

So that’s the list.  What say you?  Do you know of any other easy and beneficial annual that I can use to bulk up my soil?  What about perennials, I think I’ll make that list next!