Purple-Headed Sneezeweed

Helenium flexuosum

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Photo of purple-headed sneezeweed flowerhead showing round, purplish disk.
The purplish disk florets of purple-headed sneezeweed distinguish it our other sneezeweeds, whose centers are yellow.
Other Common Name
Southern Sneezeweed
Family

Asteraceae (daisies, sunflowers)

Description

Perennial with branching, winged stems. Flowerheads many, with 8–13 yellow ray florets fan-shaped, notched, reflexed downward. The large disk is brownish or purplish, dome-shaped to nearly spherical. Blooms June–November. Leaves, at flowering time, mostly on the middle parts of the stem and withered away on the lower parts; alternate, narrowly lance-shaped, with or without a few teeth; the leaf tissue extending down the stem as wings.

Similar species: Four species of Helenium grow in Missouri. The others are discussed elsewhere in this guide. All have rounded disks and yellow, fan-shaped, drooping ray flowers. This is the only one that has purplish or brownish disk florets.

Size

Height: 8 inches to nearly 4 feet.

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Photo of purple-headed sneezeweed plants showing flowers and stem tops.
Purple-Headed Sneezeweed (Southern Sneezeweed)
Look for purple-headed sneezeweed in moist, open areas, mostly in the southern half of the state.

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Photo of purple-headed sneezeweed leaves, showing leaf tissue wings on stems.
Purple-Headed Sneezeweed (Leaves)
Purple-headed sneezeweed’s leaves, interestingly, have the leaf tissue extending down the stem as wings.

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Photo of purple-headed sneezeweed, large plant, showing profuse branching.
Purple-Headed Sneezeweed (Southern Sneezeweed)
Purple-headed sneezeweed often branches profusely, bearing flattened clusters of flowerheads.

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Photo of purple-headed sneezeweed flowerheads showing fan-shaped ray florets.
Purple-Headed Sneezeweed (Southern Sneezeweed)
Sneezeweeds were used historically as snuff. The sneezing it caused helped to alleviate colds, stuffy noses, and other maladies.

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Photo of purple-headed sneezeweed flowerhead, viewed from side
Purple-Headed Sneezeweed
Purple-headed sneezeweeds are identified by their rounded, purple disks, fan-shaped yellow rays, and winged stems.
Habitat and conservation

Occurs on banks of streams, rivers, and spring branches, margins of sinkhole ponds, sloughs, swamps, bottomland prairies, moist depressions of upland prairies, bottomland forests, and seepy ledges of bluffs; also pastures, old fields, ditches, railroads, roadsides, and moist, open, disturbed areas.

image of Purple-Headed Sneezeweed Southern Sneezeweed distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Scattered, mostly south of the Missouri River.

Status

Collections in Howell County in 1960 of unusual but similar plants were long considered hybrids of autumn sneezeweed and purple-headed sneezeweed. But in 2000 DNA testing proved they were not descendants of those species, and showed they were instead a different species, the federally threatened and state endangered Virginia sneezeweed. See the entry for autumn sneezeweed for more on that rare sneezeweed.

Human connections

Missouri has more than 320 aster-family species, and this is the only one with its unique combination of traits — domed, purple head; winged stems; fan-shaped yellow ray flowers — isn’t it amazing that we can learn to know each plant, kind of how we get to know our friends?

Ecosystem connections

Numerous bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, and beetles visit the flowers for nectar and pollen. Aphids suck the sap, and moth caterpillars bore in the stems. Sneezeweeds contain toxic, bitter substances, and grazing mammals, including cattle, avoid eating them.