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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

Coneflower-- Echinacea

Mention coneflowers, and most gardeners think of a purple-petaled prairie flower resembling a daisy. Experts recognize 9 different species of coneflower, all in the genus Echinacea. They all resemble daisies, but colors range from white to pink, purple, and one species, Echinacea paradoxa, is yellow. Native to the North American prairie and open woodlands, some species of Echinacea are resilient choices for your landscape.

Echinacea purpurea is the most widely cultivated, and probably the hardiest of the Echinacea species. This tough plant is most likely the source of the coneflower's reputation as one requiring little maintenance. Once established it can handle Illinois summers and winters with ease.

The early 2000's marked the rise of a multitude of unique Echinacea cultivars, unlike anything ever seen before. One of the first was 'Razzmatazz' in 2003, which has purple flowers that look like pom-poms, without the characteristic spiky coneflower center. This cultivar was reportedly identified as a random mutation in a field of coneflower being grown for cut flowers.

Around the same time multiple plant breeders were experimenting with crossing different species of Echinacea. Inter-species crosses are not always successful—but in the case of Echinacea many of these crosses produced viable seeds, and some of the crosses grew into plants that produced colors never before seen in coneflowers—particularly shades of red and orange. Specifically, crosses with Echinacea paradoxa, the only yellow-petaled species, yielded the first orange-petaled cultivar, 'Art's Pride' (a.k.a. 'Orange Meadowbrite') released by Dr. Jim Ault's plant breeding program at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Following these early introductions, new Echinacea cultivar introductions exploded. New flower forms, new colors never seen before, super-tall or super-short cultivars were coming on the market faster than gardeners could learn their names. Many people, myself included, were enamored with the new colors of coneflowers being released.

The first orange-petaled coneflower I bought was 'Art's Pride'. I coaxed a few flowers out of it, but they weren't the brilliant orange that the catalog picture promised. The flowers had a pinkish hue to them. That plant lasted a couple of years but never bloomed much. For the price I had paid for it ($15+) I felt a bit cheated.

I later tried just about every cultivar from the 'Big Sky' series and they all did so-so for a year or two and died out. Some of the new cultivars didn't even last a growing season in my garden. Variegated plants are known for being less than vigorous, but 'Sparkler' a coneflower with variegated foliage, died within a month or so of planting. Despite varying the planting locations, the new coneflowers just seemed to lack vigor compared to the tried-and-true purple coneflower.

Every year promises new and improved coneflower cultivars. One that had shown promise in my garden was 'Tomato Soup', a red-petaled coneflower. This cultivar performed well in my garden for the last 3 years. It finally seemed to be a new coneflower that looked like the catalog picture and was reliable. But as it started blooming this week, the flower was unmistakably purple. The second flower that bloomed was the red color it's supposed to be. Both flowers are on the same plant.

I have noticed that a few of the new coneflower varieties that managed to reseed have come up looking like standard purple coneflower. But that didn't surprise me considering that the many of the new cultivars are hybrids—selected plants from crosses of specific parents. Seed from hybrid plants do not produce plants that look like the original plant. Plus if you are growing multiple cultivars of coneflower, there is always a chance they are crossing thanks to visits from pollinating insects, which would create even more genetic combinations.

Purple flowers on the original plant seems to be a case of reversion—where the genetic material changes in one part of the plant and it develops differently from the rest. Usually reversion restores the "standard" or "wild type" appearance. In most Echinaceas, that would be a purple flower.

It turns out in reading online garden discussions, all of what I've observed with my coneflowers has been observed by gardeners everywhere—lack of hardiness, new seedlings bloom purple, and original plants appearing to revert to purple. Some people are having luck with the new Echinacea cultivars, but for every reportedly successful cultivar, you can find some account of how it failed.

Many sources I read credit the questionable hardiness of many of the new coneflowers to the fact that many of them have Echinacea paradoxa, the only yellow-petaled coneflower species in their pedigree. This species is especially sensitive to moisture and needs exceptionally well-drained soil to thrive. One source I read argued that the new coneflowers aren't all that different in hardiness from the old workhorse Echinacea purpurea, but since E. purpurea seedlings grow true, or in other words look like the parent plant, gardeners never notice that the parent plant dies out in 2-3 years and is replaced by a seedling.

I'm sure there is some truth to all these statements, and they all contribute to the fussy reputation many of the new coneflowers are earning. Maybe gardeners just need to accept that they are high maintenance plants and not a "plant it and forget it" plant like Echinacea purpurea. That would save a lot of disappointment. Right now I don't have the time or patience for fussy plants in my garden. I'll stick to old reliable Echinacea purpurea for the foreseeable future.



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