Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, was one of the first perennials I started from seed when I was in high school. I was amazed that it worked–I had actual plants that grew quite vigorously. Inspired by my success, I used more of my hard-earned babysitting money to buy what I considered 'exotic', seed of the white-flowered Echinacea cultivar 'White Swan'. I thought I had captured the world of coneflowers with those two cultivars. Boy was I wrong. There were a lot more coneflowers out there, and in recent years this list has expanded dramatically.
Coneflowers are tough little native plants, having adapted to a wide range of environments across North America. Their genus name Echinacea comes from the Latin name for hedgehog, echinos, referring to the often prickly lower stem of the plant. They all have the same general form, very upright plants two to four feet in height, dark green foliage topped with showy flowers. They are fast growers and self-sow their seed profusely.
There are four species common in the U.S.. Echinacea angustifolia, Narrow-leaf Purple Coneflower, is native to the western U.S.. Echinacea pallida, Pale Coneflower is from the central U.S. and has been used by Native Americans medicinally for bites, stings and burns. Echinacea paradoxa, Yellow Coneflower, is native specifically to the Ozark mountains. Echinacea purpurea, Purple Coneflower, is native to the central U.S. and is probably the species most familiar to us in Illinois.
The genus Echinacea is part of the Aster family. Plants in this family have daisy-like flowers, which are technically composed of two types of flowers. The showy petals are called ray flowers, and the center of the flower is made up of much smaller disk flowers. In coneflower, only the center disk flowers are fertile and can set seed.
Coneflowers are also self-incompatible, meaning they cannot pollinate their own flowers. They depend on insects like bees to transfer pollen between plants for successful seed set. Strangely enough, this pollen can be from any other coneflower, not just the same species.
In 1968 Ronald McGregor published an article detailing how different species of Echinacea could be successfully crossed. At the time, no one paid much attention to his publication in the University of Kansas Science Bulletin. His publication lay unnoticed until 1995, when Dr. Jim Ault, Director of Ornamental Plant Research at the Chicago Botanic Garden selected Echinacea as a plant to be featured in a new plant breeding initiative at the Botanic Garden.
The plant breeding program was to be a part of what is now called the Chicagoland Grows® Plant Introduction Program. This program was designed to identify, evaluate, produce and market plants that perform well in Northern Illinois. Coneflowers already performed well in Northern Illinois. Dr. Ault concluded after reading McGregor's 1968 publication that there was an untapped genetic goldmine waiting within the genus Echinacea. He spent two years assembling a collection of Echinacea species and cultivars. By 1997 he began crossing his different coneflowers, focusing on interspecific crosses, or crosses between different coneflower species.
The first public introduction from Dr. Ault's efforts in 2004 was an orange flowered cultivar he named 'Art's Pride' in honor of a major donor to the Botanic Garden. This cultivar is also marketed under the trademarked name 'Orange Meadowbrite™'. There are also other cultivars in various stages of evaluation before they will be publically released.
Dr. Ault is not the only one experimenting with breeding Echinacea. In recent years a flood of new Echinacea colors have shown up in garden centers. Counting the original purple and white cultivars, there are over thirty Echinacea cultivars out there. Some are quite unique, like 'Doppelganger' (also seen as 'Doubledecker') that has a second layer of petals at the center of the flower, resembling a crown. Some, like 'Little Giant' are fragrant. The possibilities seem endless.
I've had several questions recently on where one can purchase seed of these new Echinacea cultivars. The simple answer is you can't. The longer answer is these novel cultivars came from progeny of a specific cross. There may have been one usable plant amid thousands of duds.
To produce enough plants to meet the market's demand for the new cultivars, the plants are propagated in labs via tissue culture. Tissue culture takes a piece of the plant and using plant hormones in a dish or flask produces thousands of tiny new plants. These are grown and sold to the public. Obviously, this takes a lot more time than planting seed or dividing existing plants. This at least partially explains the significantly higher cost that the new cultivars typically have.