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Echinacea - Purple Coneflowers are Garden Favorites

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Echinacea - Purple Coneflowers are Garden Favorites
Deformed Coneflower

The deformed flower likely has aster yelllws and should be removed.

Photo: © Marie Iannotti
Echinacea 'Pink Double Delight' - Yes, it's a Coneflower

Echinacea 'Pink Double Delight' is an example of what the hybridizers are doing besides coming up with new colors

Photo Courtesy of Garden Splendor

Overview and Description:

Purple Coneflowers are quintessential prairie plants. They are hardy, drought tolerant, long-blooming, and are being cultivated in a ever widening range of colors. It's hard to find a garden without at least one variety. Echinacea is a native North American genus with about 10 species. Not all make great garden plants. Echinacea purpurea is by far the most popular. It has a more fibrous root system, rather than the long tap root and woody crown found in other wilder species, and is more adaptable to garden conditions and more forgiving of dividing and transplanting.

Flowers: The daisy-like flower is actually made up of several small flowers. The petals are sterile and are there to lure insects toward the many fertile flowers in the central disk or cone. These flowers are rich in nectar and very popular with both bees and butterflies.

Flowers were generally some shade of purple or lavender, with a dark center cone. Much hybridization has been taking place and you can now find petal colors ranging from white to green through yellow, orange and deep reds.

The common name "coneflower" refers to the way the petals angle backwards, away from the center, forming a cone.

Foliage: Growth starts with a clump of basal leaves, which eventually send up flower stems in mid-summer. The leaf shape depends on the variety. Many have oval leaves with a wide base, but some from dry, western areas often have narrow leaves.

Botanical Name:

Echinacea spp. and hybrids

Common Name(s):

Conflower

Hardiness Zones:

Most coneflowers will grow well just about anywhere and are labeled USDA Hardiness Zones 3-9. You may want to give them a little winter protection their first year, but once established, they are rugged and hardy.

Mature Size:

Size will vary greatly, depeding on variety and growing conditions. Most will fall in the broad range of 2 - 4 ft. tall by 16 - 24 in. wide. There are also dwarf varieties, like 'Kim's Knee-high' which only grows 16-18 in. tall.

Exposure:

To get the most blooms and the sturdiest plants, plant them in a spot that gets at least 5 hours of full sun a day. They will tolerate partial shade, but plants may flop or strain to reach the sun.

Bloom Period/Days to Harvest:

Coneflowers start blooming in early to mid summer and repeat bloom though frost. They may take a break after their initial bloom period, but they will quickly set more flower buds.

Growing Tips:

Soil:  Most coneflowers grown in gardens prefer a neutral soil pH of about 6.5 to 7.0.

Although they thrive best in a soil high in organic matter, too much supplemental fertilizer can cause them to become leggy. The new hybrids need more TLC than the species.

Growing from Seed: Coneflower hybrids tend to be sterile, but the species are relatively easy to grow from seed. If you'd like to save seed, wait until the cone has fully dried. It will be darker in color and stiff to the touch. The seeds are attached to the sharp spines. You don't need to separate them, before storing or planting. You could plant the whole cone, if you like, although you'll want to divide the many seedlings you'll wind up with. (If you grow multiple varieties and collect the seed yourself, you may well wind up with some interesting crosses.)

The seeds germinate best with some cold stratification. The easiest route would be to sow them outdoors in the fall, either in the ground or winter sow in pots. If you are going to start seed indoors, simulate the chilling period by soaking the seeds in water and then placing the slightly damp seed in a sealed container in the refrigerator for 8 - 10 weeks. Then take them out and plant as you normally would. They should germinate within 10 - 14 days.

Planting:

If you don't want to start your own seeds, there are plenty of varieties available for purchase as plants, especially through mail order. Plants can also be divided or grown from stem cuttings. Coneflowers can be planted in either spring or fall. I would recommend planting the new cultivars in the spring, to give them time to become established. 

Be sure to allow for good air circulation to prevent fungal diseases.

Maintenance:

Coneflowers are often listed as drought tolerant, but they will do much better with regular water.

I leave the plants standing through winter, to feed the birds. Shearing them back in the spring will result in bushier plants that bloom longer into the season.

Deadheading is the primary maintenance required with coneflowers. They are prolific bloomers and keeping them deadheaded will keep them in bloom all summer. Luckily each flower remains in bloom for several weeks.

Flowers start blooming from the top of the stem. As the initial flower fades, more side shoots and buds will form along the stem. Keep the plants deadheaded and you'll keep getting more flowers.

I've been experimenting with not deadheading the new cultivars and also with removing all the buds the first year. So far, allowing them to grow and flower and not cutting them back until new growth appears has yielded the best results.

Pests and Problems:

For the most part, coneflowers have very few problems. I already mentioned giving them good air circulation, so they aren't bothered by fungal diseases. If you should see mildew or spots on the leaves, simply cut them back and let them fill back in.

Aster yellows, a systemic plant disease that causes growth deformities in the flowers. It can affect hundreds of different flowers, not just those in the aster family. There is not known cure and it is spread by a leafhopper, so affected plants should be removed and destroyed  as soon as possible, to protect nearby plants.

 

Design Tips:

Coneflowers tend to spread rapidly, forming large, wonderful swathes. They combine especially well with other native prairie type plants such as: ornamental grasses, yarrow  (Achillea), butterfly weed (Asclepias) and Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium), but probably the best combination is with Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia). Both tend to bloom throughout the summer,creating an easy care carpet of blooms.

Since coneflowers are so cold hardy, they are also good choices for containers. You will probably need to divide them at least annually, or they will start to die out in their centers.

Suggested Varieties:

Where to start? There are new varieties every year. Some make the cut and some disappear quickly. The 3 listed here have been popular for quite awhile, but also take a look at the many new coneflower introductions.The yellow petaled Echinacea paradoxa was used to develop many of these brightly hued coneflower hybrids. They don't tend to be as widely adaptable as Echinacea purpurea, being prone to root rot. Although I find them beautiful, few have survived the winter in my Zone 5b/6a garden. Newer hybrids are favoring Echinacea purpurea's fibrous root system and show more promise.

  • Echenacea purpurea 'Magnus' - Deep purple petals with orange centers. Very adaptable.
     
  • Echenacea purpurea 'White Lustre' - Rich, creamy white petals.
     
  • Echenacea tennesseensis. - Narrow, deep mauve petals and greenish pink centers. Tennessee coneflower has petals that point upwards. It was crossed with traditional plants to hybridized a flat flower head.
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