The Many Faces of Echinaceas

Hot new cultivars give classic coneflowers a saucy facelift.

| August/September 2005

  • Echinacea purpurea 'Mango Meadowbrite'
  • Echinacea purpurea 'Hope'
    Courtesy of Terra Nova
  • Echinacea purpurea 'Fragrant Angel'
    Courtesy of Terra Nova
  • Echinacea purpurea 'Mango Meadowbrite'
    Andrew Van Hevelingen
  • Echinacea purpurea 'Mango Meadowbrite'
    Andrew Van Hevelingen
  • Echinacea purpurea 'White Swan'
    Andrew Van Hevelingen

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.

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