Visit a Missouri prairie, pasture, marsh or roadside during the fall, and you'll encounter the golden-flowered perennial members of the genus Helenium. This group is well represented in Missouri by several species, and they all resemble miniature sunflowers.
The unassuming flowers of Helenium have captured imaginations for many centuries. The Greeks were the first known to pay homage to the flowers through lore and legend. One Greek tale suggests that Helenium first grew on ground watered with the tears of Helen of Troy. Another myth asserts that the plant took the name of Helenium after Helena, wife of Menelaus, who had her hands full of the flowers when Paris stole her away into Phrygia. Another story suggests that the plant was named for the island of Helena, where the most favored medicinal plants reputedly grew.
Although these derivations are colorful, it is most likely that the name Helenium was derived from the Greek word "helios," meaning sun. The plant's small yellow flowers do resemble diminutive suns.
Helenium, however, does have extraordinary properties. In the new world, many groups of Native Americans cultivated and used Helenium for various medicinal purposes, including treating fevers and head colds. The common name, sneezeweed, was probably derived from the use of the dried flowers as snuff by natives and early settlers. Constantine Rafinesque, in his 1828 Medical Flora of the United States, wrote, "sneezeweed could be used in diseases of the head, deafness, headache, rheumatism or congestion of the head and jaws. The plant probably has many other properties, little known as yet and deserving investigation."
The plant's medicinal value has been confirmed by the National Cancer Institute, which identified significant anti tumor qualities in sneezeweed compounds.
This group of plants had long been thought to be represented in the state by three fairly common and weedy species, all resembling miniature sunflowers. However, renowned botanist Julienne Steyermark, author of The Flora of Missouri, once spotted another species while changing a tire outside of Pomona. The plant was growing along a sinkhole pond near the highway.
Steyermark never identified the Helenium he found that day. The physical characteristics of the plant that he located were similar to that of a plant known only to occur around a handful of sinkhole ponds in the state of Virginia. Was the plant that Steyermark discovered actually Virginia sneezeweed. If so, how did it end up at a sinkhole pond in