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The purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is one of the North American prairie’s great contributions to gardens across the globe. Open any recent book on perennial borders—written here or in Europe—and you’ll find an echinacea. Grow one, and you’ll understand this popularity. After all, the purple coneflower is easy to grow, cheap to obtain and looks good over a long season with little maintenance.
It’s no wonder, then, that breeders are working to create hybrids with exciting new colors and exotic flower forms. And it’s not surprising that gardeners are buying them. But many new varieties disappoint. They don’t have the hardiness and long-suffering nature of the older seed-grown strains. Rather than increasing, they disappear. June Hutson, supervisor of the Kemper Center at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, has experienced difficulty with new echinaceas. “We’ve noticed that they’re very weak growers,” she says, and few varieties have met her approval.
Why these troubles? Echinaceas are naturally short-lived plants. That stand of purple coneflowers you’ve had in the backyard for 10 years is not the same plant you put out 10 years ago. According to Tony Avent, director of Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, North Carolina, older seed-grown echinaceas have a continuing presence in the garden because of their generous self-seeding. “You’ll lose the original plant after a while,” he says, “But there will be a little one at the base to take its place.”
The newer varieties, however, rarely set seed. So, when they die out after three years or so, you have a hole in the garden. The important thing with new varieties is to keep the original plant alive as long as possible. There are two keys to success, Avent says: Give them good drainage and choose vigorous varieties.
You have control over drainage (put the plant in a well-drained spot), but how are you to know which of the bewildering number of new varieties have vigor? In order to help gardeners avoid bad experiences with new echinaceas, I asked experts Avent and Hutson, as well as Kelly Norris, a horticulturist from Bedford, Iowa, to tell me about the varieties that had performed well in their gardens. We discussed a large number of echinaceas that fell into three categories: improved versions of old favorites; varieties with unusual flower colors; and varieties with exotic flower forms.
Find a chart that organizes these new echinaceas by color, zone and more in Echinacea Varieties.
• Sun: Full sun
• Height: 15 to 40 inches
• Width: 18 to 24 inches
• Bloom time: May through October
• Soil: Well-drained, tolerant of a wide range of soil types
It should be noted that the newer varieties of echinacea are mainly decorative and are bred for hardiness and appearance, not for medicinal quality. Plant them for an unexpected pop of color, but they won’t be very effective medicinally.
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.