The Coneflower Explosion
Thomas G. Barnes @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
Question: Can you recommend a hardy, easy care, drought resistant, sunny border plant? Answer: Yes. Coneflowers (Echinacea). They are easy to grow, bloom over a long season in summer and fall, are very hardy, drought tolerant, attract butterflies, provide bird food, and produce beautiful flower arrangements. Coneflowers are fairly deer resistant, although my urbanized neighborhood doe and fawn have nibbled on it. Rabbits enjoy it on occasion, as do Japanese Beetles. Soil must be well drained; wet soil or over-watering can kill the plants. Rarely, leaf hoppers will transmit a virus-like disease called aster yellows to Echinacea. Affected plants have yellowing leaves, stunted growth, and often odd witches-broom like growths instead of normal flowers. The disease cannot be treated and the only solution is to destroy the affected plants immediately. In caring for your healthy plants, fertilize lightly – a light top dressing of general purpose fertilizer in the spring is adequate; over-fertilization will cause excessive growth and stem weakness. Divide plants in the spring. All varieties have a distinct, large prickly cone; in fact, the genus name Echinacea comes from the Greek word echinos which means hedgehog. In all, including the species, there are currently over 30 different varieties or selections of Echinacea that you can grow in your sunny garden.
Of the 9 recognized species in the United States, angustifolia, pallida, paradoxa, and purpurea are often used in wildflower meadows or gardens. In 1998, the Perennial Plant Association chose the Echinacea purpurea cultivar ‘Magnus’ as its Perennial Plant of the Year. ‘Magnus’ has larger, brighter colored flowers than the species, and the flowers are held flat, rather than drooping. Recently, plant breeders have crossbred the purple and yellow coneflowers. New selections of older cultivars have also been developed. The results have orange, yellow, purple, magenta, white, and red shades, medium and large flowers, tall and dwarf forms. The Chicago Botanic Gardens developed the intensely fragrant ‘Orange Meadowbrite’ and ‘Mango Meadowbrite’ coneflowers. At maturity, they will reach 30-36 inches high by about 3 feet wide. Unfortunately, these ‘Meadowbrites’ tend to flop over as they get taller. ‘Pixie Meadowbrite’ is an excellent new dwarf coneflower. From Georgia’s Itsaul Nurseries comes the Big Sky series. Petals on these coneflowers are a little wider and stems are sturdier than some of the Meadowbrite series. ‘Big Sky Sunrise’ (30-36”) is creamy yellow; ‘Big Sky Sunset’ (24-30 inches) is electric orange; ‘Big Sky Twilight’(23-29”) is burgundy red; ‘Big Sky Harvest Moon’ (24”) is bright yellow. All are very fragrant. Some of these new cultivars may be slow to emerge from a long winter’s sleep, so be patient. Deadheading spent flowers will prolong the bloom.
Other Echinacea: ‘Doubledecker’ (36-40”) is a real oddball! After a couple of years in the garden, most plants in this seed strain develop a unique second row of small pink petals atop its cones. ‘Sparkler’ is a dwarf plant with all-season interest from its flecked cream and green leaves. ‘Prairie Frost’ has attractive green leaves edged in cream. ‘Pink Double Delight’ is a unique, fully double coneflower with pink petals in place of the normal, central cone. ‘Ruby Giant’ has large 6” flowers in my garden. ‘Fragrant Angel’ has sweet smelling, huge white flowers. ‘Fancy Frills’ has attractive layers of narrow and frilly outer petals. Other unique cultivars are available and look for even more in the near future.