True Or False, This Is A Good Plant

Why are some plants called “false”? Like the Midwestern native False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), whose common name implies that it is guilty of impersonating a sunflower (Helianthus sp.). This is unfair on so many levels.

Heliopsis helianthoides Prairie Sunset
Heliopsis ‘Prairie Sunset’ with Wild Bergamot

First of all, who is to say that the sunflowers came first, and that the Heliopsis is the imitation? Even its Latin species name (helianthoides) means “like a sunflower”. This is an egregious example of the botanical elitism of our sunflower-centric culture. Doesn’t Heliopsis have value simply for being itself, as opposed to being like another flower that just happens to be better known? Heliopsis means “like the sun”, while Helianthus means “sun flower”. Seems to me that being “like the sun” is just as good as being a “sun flower”.

Heliopsis helianthoides Prairie Sunset

Some retailers have handled this and similar problems by inventing their own common names, in this case “Early Sunflower” instead of “False Sunflower”. For me, this merely compounds the insult. Yes, Heliopsis flowers as early as June, but that still does not make it some auxiliary form of sunflower.

But where was I going with this? Oh, right. What I had actually meant to write about was that Heliopsis helanthoides ‘Prairie Sunset’ is a really cool flower, and in my opinion an improvement on the species.

Heliopsis helianthoides prairie sunset

The species is nice, don’t get me wrong. It bears many yellow flowers usually from June through September. My only criticisms are that it can be quite large and rather sprawling, smothering its smaller neighbors. For me it grows to 4′ even after being cut back. The other thing is that it self-sows, as they say, freely. For these reasons I ended up removing Heliopsis from my sidewalk bed.

‘Prairie Sunset’ has a more upright habit, though I also have it growing with taller neighbors less likely to be overwhelmed. In addition, it has attractive purple stems and flowers with red centers. Sometimes the flowers have a reddish ring around the inner part of the “petals” (ray flowers).  I have yet to see if ‘Prairie Sunset’ is any less free when it comes to self-sowing.

Heliopsis helanthoides Prairie Sunset

One other thing I have discovered this year is that Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) is an excellent companion plant for ‘Prairie Sunset’, in terms of both colors and habits.

Have you grown ‘Prairie Sunset’, or any other Heliopsis? And don’t you think it is an injustice for it to be called “False” Sunflower?

46 Comments on “True Or False, This Is A Good Plant

  1. Used to have this in my old house. Definitely unjust to call it False Sunflowers. It didn’t try to imitate the sunflowers, it wanted to be golden daisies! Or maybe rudbeckia. 🙂

    Beautiful combination with the monarda!

  2. False indigo, false Solomon seals, false dayflower, false lupine, false aster, false spirea,… perhaps they could form a club?

  3. This made me chuckle — nothing false or imitative about this pretty flower! Your pictures are so crisp and shining, and I love the combination of the soft lavender monarda and the sunny rays of the heliopsis. What a great pairing.

  4. I have wondered why some plants are called ‘false’ thanks for showing a little light on it, no I don’t understand why they should be called false, I think the plant you show (which is new to me) is beautiful and the combination with the wild monard is really lovely, Frances

  5. It’s a lovely plant, and doesn’t look at all “false”. I have never grown it but have grown Helianthus tuberosus and wished I hadn’t… talk about invasive! It threatens to take over every year and has to pulled out to keep it in check!

  6. I don’t really have any knowledge of why ‘false’ but an interesting observation is that you talk of ‘freely self seeding’ as a negative property whereas I would feel I had planted it where it wanted to be, that it was happy and that I had more plants for free! Usually plants that have self seeded aren’t that difficult to remove, easier than most of what we call weeds!

  7. I love all sunflowers, whether they are true or false. And I’ve noticed this one before in plant catalogues and thought it was quite appealing. Do the rabbits eat them? I’ve been reluctant to try them since the rabbits chowed down my Lorraine Sunshine.

    • I haven’t had a problem with rabbits eating this plant, but maybe that’s because they’re so full from eating everything else in my garden.

  8. Lovely combination!! It reminds me of the rudbeckia I have planted with red bee balm. That’s what I thought it was at first. I’ll have to pay attention to those false titles. False means better right? 🙂

  9. I really should get that Prairie Sunset already, the photos of it alongside the bergamont are perfect! Do yours get those nasty little red aphids? My plain old seed grown ones always seem to pull them in…. as well as the rabbits. This was the first year they missed mowing it down (repeatedly).

    • Yes, it does get the red aphids, but they do no visible damage. I’ve decided to just tolerate them and hope the beneficials keep the numbers at acceptable levels.

  10. Lol….I’m in total agreement about the “false”, what a lovely combination, I may steal that from you!xxxx

  11. I have a similar one that has purple stems and that ring of red and it is less of a seeder….Gorgeous with any monarda…I love it under any name although it is anything but false.

  12. I am a lucky gardener that has H.loraine sunshine? in my garden…I love the variegated leaves, but I do wish that it would stand a bit taller….there are many little volunteers in my garden from that beauty…and they are welcome to flourish. I don’t consider them weeds at all.

    I do love the variety that you have there, it’s lovely.


    • Thank you. I’ve seen you post pictures with Lorraine Sunshine, it is indeed very handsome. That’s a variety I have not tried.

  13. “This is an egregious example of the botanical elitism of our sunflower-centric culture. Doesn’t Heliopsis have value simply for being itself, as opposed to being like another flower that just happens to be better known?” That is exactly the kind of stuff I come to your blog for! Your points are well made!

  14. For me, when I’m looking for plants in the wild, the “false’ part of the name tells me that it looks similar to the plant that it mimicks. If you know what the “true” plant looks like then finding the “false” one is sometimes easier.

  15. ‘Prairie Sunset’ is a really pretty cultivar of this flower. All I know about this plant is that it threatened to take over my friend’s garden, and it took her years to eradicate most of it. She gave me a few starts–with a warning–but it’s been very well-behaved for me. I guess the thugs in my garden have it intimidated:)

    • I suppose Heliopsis could take over if you don’t promptly pull out the seedlings. On the other hand, the seedlings aren’t hard to remove, nor are the adult plants.

  16. Gorgeous! I HAVE to get some of that Wild Bergamot. And it does look wonderful with the Prairie Sunset. As to the whole “false” naming convention: we out West have a number of those like False Solomon’s Seal, False Lily of the Valley, etc. I heard that the “true” ones are the first to be named (often on the East coast) and the ones that were encountered later and resembled the first ones were called “false.” However, a native plant collector and propagator friend refuses to call any of them “false.” She refers to them as Western Solomon’s Seal, Western Lily of the Valley, etc. I love the idea. You could go for Midwestern Sunflower? By the way, if I haven’t said it before, I love your writing!

  17. Heehee! This is an amusing post 🙂 I love the look of your wild bergamot – does it have a good scent too? Never grown the false sunflowers, just the un-false ones! 😀

  18. I had Heliopsis ‘Loraine Sunshine’ in my last garden. I don’t know how well it will do in our temperate rain forest conditions but I’ll give it a go as it was such a lovely plant.

  19. I am a fan of Heliopsis helianthoides and have it growing in several places in my garden. Most of my plants are the species, but I also have a Blooms of Bressingham cultivar called “Bressingham Gold Doubloon.” I have had very little self-seeding from mine, but that may be because I cut so many of them to use in flower arrangements for the house. They make great cut flowers!
    I generally just call it Heliopsis, thereby avoiding any invidious comparisons. 🙂

  20. They are taking over the world in my yard! If anyone has any suggestions how to control them, I would appreciate the info. I pull them out by the roots every year, yet they come back just as strong or stronger next season.

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