The Many Faces of Echinaceas

Hot new cultivars give classic coneflowers a saucy facelift.

Dopelganger

Echinacea purpurea 'Mango Meadowbrite'

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The tremendous popularity of the valuable North American native echinaceas, known to gardeners as purple coneflowers, have led to exciting breakthroughs in plant breeding. Newly cultivated varieties of Echinacea species have been introduced across the United States in recent years, as nurseries hurry to capitalize on its popularity with gardeners. What’s not to love in a sturdy, extremely hardy perennial with great daisy-like flowers centered on attractive colored cones?

The Healing Flower

From America’s heartlands, the nine native species of the Echinacea genus have historically been revered for their medicinal properties, and more recently have been the subject of intense study regarding those properties.

The Plains Indians used echinacea extensively for insect bites, bee stings and snakebites, as a blood purifier, to treat coughs and sore throats, and for many other ailments. Its usefulness and distinctive appearance are reflected in the many common names it has gone by, including, snakeroot, scurvy root, Indian head and hedgehog.

In recent decades, scientific research has validated echinacea’s ability to stimulate the immune system, increasing resistance to colds, flu and such infectious diseases as the herpes virus. All nine species share these properties to some degree, but they are especially concentrated in three: E. purpurea, E. angustifolia and E. pallida. Echinacea is the bestselling native medicinal plant in North America.

Meet the Upstarts

Gardeners now can find echinacea hybrids and improved varieties in exhilarating new colors with multiple petal arrangements, colorful central cones, longer bloom times, compact growth habits and fragrance. Leading the way are such distinguished plant breeders as Jim Ault of the Chicago Botanic Garden, with the Meadowbrite series; Richard Saul of Itsaul Plants in Atlanta, with the Big Sky series; and Dan Heims of Terra Nova Nursery in Tigard, Oregon, with such introductions as ‘Ruby Giant’, ‘Fragrant Angel’ and ‘Sparkler’. The flower color range of purples, rose and cerise — and the yellow-flowered E. paradoxa —has been expanded to include pure white, more purples and reds, and bright yellows and oranges.

Recent introductions have increased vigor and offer more compact growth habits, making them suitable for almost any garden setting. If space is limited, try the dwarf cultivar ‘Kim’s Knee High’ or the more recent ‘Little Giant’. If it’s scent you’re looking for, try the rich fragrance of  ‘Fragrant Angel’; add a twist of orange citrus and you have ‘Orange Meadowbrite’. For intriguing foliage, the variegated ‘Sparkler’ might light your fire.  A new cultivar called ‘Paranoia’ is nothing to be afraid of.

Growing the Coneflower

These new cultivars offer new landscape applications and are standout performers in containers, flower and perennial borders, native landscapes, butterfly gardens and drought-resistant gardens. They provide material for both fresh and dried flower arrangements.

The new cultivars also are very hardy perennials — typically Zones 3 to 8 — and grow from 2 to 4 feet tall and half as wide. They require well-drained soil with full sun for best growth and flower production. Except for the variegated ones, most of these plants have deep green, simple, coarse-textured leaves. The lower leaves are usually large and ovate, and occasionally toothed on the margin. The upper leaves tend to be slightly smaller and spear-shaped. The flowers have numerous rays arranged either outward and flat or slightly drooping around a central stiff, brownish cone. (The word echinacea is derived from the Greek word echinos, meaning sea urchin or hedgehog and referring to the pointed bracts of this cone.)

Echinaceas have a long blooming period starting in late June and continuing through September. Warmer summer temperatures seem to bring out better, richer flower colors.

Echinaceas are extremely adaptable, are easily grown in average soils and will usually tolerate a variety of garden conditions, including drought, heat, humidity and poor soils. Acidic soils, however, may be fatal; optimum soil pH is 5.8 to 6.8. They are virtually maintenance-free, but removing the spent flowers will make the plant look better and perhaps enhance flower production. Also, as the rootstock increases, an occasional division — about every three to four years — of an overcrowded clump is beneficial to renew plant vigor and appearance. At the end of the growing season, echinaceas will go dormant and seed heads may be pruned to prevent seeding, or left as a winter forage plant especially delectable to goldfinches.

Some pests that may be a problem are slugs and snails, especially in the early spring when the plant is breaking dormancy with new tender growth. Other pests include thrips, aphids and mites. Echinaceas may experience crown rot or fungal leaf spot if the soil is too wet around the crown area. Propagation is by seed, vegetative propagation or crown division; but because most of these new cultivars are patented, asexual propagation is prohibited. Most growers agree that keeping seed in a moist medium or soilless mixture at 40 degrees for four to eight weeks will produce a faster and more uniform flowering crop. It also should be noted that collecting certain  species in the wild may be prohibited; E.tennesseensis and E. laevigata, for example, are endangered species and fall under federal protection.

More new echinaceas are coming. The dwarf ‘Lilliput’  and the compact, well-branched  ‘Mars’ are both slated for 2006. Look for an even broader range of flower color from red to yellow.

— Andrew Van Hevelingen is a frequent contributor to The Herb Companion and enjoys writing, photography and gardening at his Newberg, Oregon, home.

Sources

Bluestone Perennials, www.BluestonePerennials.com; Plant Delights Nursery, www.PlantDelights.com; Song Sparrow Perennial Farm, www.SongSparrow.com, White Flower Farm, www.WhiteFlowerFarm.com.