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Sneezeweed

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Published on: Oct. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

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 Julian 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 the Missouri Ozarks. Those questions remained unanswered until recently.

Comparing the DNA of the Pomona sneezeweed to that of the rare Virginia sneezeweed, Dr. John Knox recently determined they were the same species. How it came to the Missouri Ozarks is still a puzzle.

Scientists and conservationists in Missouri began to propagate the species in Missouri. A team of biologists including Kim McCue (Center for Plant Conservation), George Yatskievych (Missouri Botanical Garden), Paul McKenzie (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), and me (Missouri Department of Conservation) collected seeds from the Pomona population and transported them to the Center for Plant Conservation in St. Louis.

Remarkably, although isolated populations of plants often don't produce viable seed, the seeds we collected were healthy. We were able to successfully grow the plants in a greenhouse.

We then began looking for appropriate sites within a 20-mile radius of where the plants were found to establish Virginia sneezeweed populations. We were looking for sinkhole ponds with seasonally variable water depth and open areas. Virginia sneezeweed loves sunlight, and it also competes well against other species in areas where the water level fluctuates.

We found two suitable sites on conservation areas. After an untimely cold snap that kept 192 baby Virginia sneezeweeds living in my kitchen for several days, I headed out with other sneezeweed lovers to introduce the young plants to their new homes in Howell County.

Over the next year, we monitored the young sneezeweeds to see how well each individual plant was faring. We also monitored the habitat conditions, especially water depth and periods of inundation.

This may seem like a lot of effort for a little plant but, to quote Aldo Leopold, "The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: 'What good is it?' If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of eons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering."

Sneezeweed has a long and fascinating cultural and medicinal history. Every time I visit the reintroduction sites to monitor the plants, I am amazed by how we are adding to this history with our reintroduction efforts for the Virginia sneezeweed. No project of this type has ever been attempted with this species anywhere in the world. What has been accomplished with Virginia sneezeweed can be likened to the birth of a rare animal in a zoo with intent of releasing the animal back into the wild so that it can reclaim its role in the natural ecosystem.

It's possible that, in a few years, Virginia sneezeweed won't be a little known curiosity but will be a success story about plant propagation and the maintenance of biodiversity.

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