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What is a Sneezeweed?

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  • Written By: Deborah Walker
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 21 September 2016
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Sneezewood, also known as helenium, bitterwood, false sunflower, swamp sunflower, or dogtooth daisy, is a clumping perennial flower native to North and Central America. As a member of the Aster family, it bears daisy-like flowers, and has medium-green leaves of approximately six inches (about 15.2 cm) long. It is often found growing beside ditches, streams, ponds, and lakes. Although susceptible to some diseases, it may be used as an easy-maintenance bedding plant in gardens. According to folklore, dried sneezeweed leaves were made into snuff and used to induce sneezing, removing evil spirits from those believed to be possessed.

From mid-summer to early fall, sneezeweed produces masses of yellow, red, and bronze flowers approximately two inches (about 5.08 cm) in diameter. Typical sneezeweed plants grow to be three to five feet tall (about 0.91-1.52 m), with a spread of approximately two feet (about 0.60 m). This plant grows in United States Department of Agriculture hardiness zones three to eight, but needs a least 100 frost-free days during the year to thrive. Sneezewood prefers full sun and well-drained, moist soil with a neutral or slightly acidic pH level.

Along with other wildflowers, sneezeweed is often used to naturalize landscapes. It is well-suited along the back border of garden beds. Some gardeners like to put sneezeweed in clusters for a particularly vivid visual effect during flowering. Sneezeweed makes a long-lasting cut flower, and is a favorite in late summer and fall flower arrangements.

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Maintaining sneezewood is quite straightforward. In the garden, taller plants may need to be staked for extra support to remain standing. At the end of the growing season, the foliage should be cut back and the dead flowers removed. Professional gardeners advise those living in cold climates to mulch the plants for added protection during winter. Clumps of sneezewood may need to be divided every three or four years to encourage healthy growth.

In late summer, sneezeweed is prone to powdery mildew, rust, leaf spot, and leaf smut. These diseases can retard growth and, although generally not serious, may kill the plant if left untreated. Diseased leaves can be plucked from the plant, or the entire plant can be removed from the garden, if necessary. To prevent disease, the plants should be spaced some two feet (about 0.61 m) apart, with plenty of space for air circulation, watered at the roots, and planted in sunny locations.

In times past, sneezeweed leaves were dried. When someone was thought to be demonically possessed, he or she was given sneezeweed snuff, making the person sneeze. The sneeze was believed to force the evil spirit out of a possessed person's body.

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