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Echinacea Varieties: Improved Versions of Old Favorites

By Caleb Melchior
April/May 2010
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Endangered E. tennesseensis is a perky magenta.
Photo by Rob Cardillo

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With any plant, one of the best things a breeder can do is select forms in which the whole plant—rather than just the flower—is more refined. After all, gardeners rarely view flowers in isolation, so the appearance of the plant as a whole is more important than that of the flower.

Dark colors have a tendency to sharpen the look of a plant, so an echinacea with black stems will always stand out. Hutson mentioned a trip to the Mount Cuba Center in Delaware, where she saw ‘Merlot’ growing in mixed trial beds. “You could stand there and pick it out,” she says. “It’s stunning.” Norris also was impressed with ‘Merlot’. “You can’t beat those black stems,” he says. He admired its carrying capacity and impact. 

A similar variety, ‘Fatal Attraction’, receives rave reviews from Avent. He says he would put it in a top-five list of echinaceas for garden value. “It has incredible vigor, great rebloom, and looks good both in bloom and bud,” he says. “It’s a very special plant.” Both ‘Merlot’ and ‘Fatal Attraction’ have brilliant magenta flowers with intense coloring heightened by their dark stems. 
Besides color, breeders can select for overall plant shape.

‘Elton Knight’ is an unusual variety that has grown well for Avent. “The flowers are all carried in one plane on the top of the plant,” Avent says. “It looks as though it’s had a crew cut.” The flowers are a typical dusty pink.     

For something shorter with lots of floral impact, try ‘Hope’. Its large flowers are paler in color than standard E. purpurea. According to Hutson, this variety is underused. “The flowers are awesome,” she says. Its squatty shape makes it useful at the front of beds and borders. 

If you’re looking for a small plant, but aren’t thrilled about the pale pink color of ‘Hope’, try ‘Avalanche’. This dwarf white variety has really impressed Avent. It blooms and reblooms with gusto. For a white flower with more stature, try ‘Fragrant Angel’. It lives up to its name. Although Norris says he has “the world’s worst sense of smell,” even he can detect the fragrance in the flowers of ‘Fragrant Angel’. Besides the perfume, ‘Fragrant Angel’ is a good-looking plant with a lot of class, Norris says.

For something different, try E. tennesseensis. Its ray petals are widely spaced, giving the flower a lighter appearance than E. purpurea hybrids. Another interesting characteristic of E. tennesseensis is that all of its flowers face east. Thus, plant it to the west of the viewer’s vantage point. The “Rocky Top Hybrids” seed strain is an improved selection of E. tennesseensis from Jelitto Seeds of Germany. Norris found the “Rocky Top Hybrids” to be a significant improvement on the species, but Hutson’s trials showed otherwise. She found the straight species to be a more satisfactory garden plant. Both are well worth trying, particularly for collectors and those interested in native species.

Save the Species

The Tennessee coneflower (E. tennesseensis) is a federally listed endangered species, as Steven Foster reported in the March 2010 issue of The Herb Companion. (Click here to read the story:  Endangered Echinacea .) Licensed nurseries sell this plant—and have been for about 20 years. Plant this rare, fascinating coneflower in your garden, and plant hope for the species.

Caleb Melchior studies landscape architecture at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. When not working in the studio, he writes about food and works in the garden.

Click here for the main article,  Echinacea Varieties: 19 Cutting-Edge Coneflowers .

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