|By Keith Hansen
Summertime can be hard on many kinds of plants in our yards and gardens. We struggle to keep alive many types that are native to tamer climates. Soaring temperatures (often above 100 degrees), unrelenting sun and weeks without rain take their toll on plants of all types, even trees and shrubs that are native to our region. So, it is good to take note of plants that year by year never fail to provide superior color during these hot summer days.
I often get asked for suggestions of plants with long-season color that will return and bloom every year. There are many perennials that supply a burst of color for a few weeks, but having some that will stay showy for several months helps to create an anchor for the garden. One native option is purple coneflower (Echinacea spp.), which can create a cheerful landscape by enhancing gardens with colorful options during the summer months.
If you have a sunny or mostly sunny location with reasonably well-drained soil and want a perennial flowering plant that blooms most of the summer, that is drought-tolerant when established and that comes in a wide range of colors, consider purple coneflowers. This is a group of native, hardy perennials that belong to the genus Echinacea. That name may be familiar to you as an herbal supplement found in pharmacy and health stores. The botanical name is Greek for “sea urchin” or “hedgehog” and refers to the spiny, prickly seed-cones remaining after the flower petals fade.
Echinacea plants are in the Asteraceae family, whose flowers are actually an inflorescence made up of hundreds of very tiny flowers. The center fertile flowers are called disc flowers, or florets, packed together into what looks like a cone, and are where the seeds are formed. The outer ring of “petals” are called ray florets, which are sterile but serve to attract pollinators and the eyes of gardeners.
There are nine native species of coneflowers in the United States, and a few have been grown a long time by gardeners for their colorful purple blooms. The most common native coneflower that is cultivated is simply known as purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). It has wide petals and a nice purple-pink color, and has been used in gardens in both the U.S. and Europe for well over 100 years. In fact, the British clergyman and trained naturalist John Banister sent New World plants from Virginia to England at the turn of the 18th century, including coneflowers.
Some other species include E. pallida, E. angustifolia and a couple of other species listed as federally endangered. E. sanguinea is a less-common Texas native to the eastern part of Texas. E. paradoxa is a rare species native to Arkansas and some isolated spots in Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas, but is unique in that it has yellow flowers and is now being used in breeding to expand the color palate beyond the common purple types.
Twenty years ago a purple coneflower (E. purpurea) variety called ‘Magnus,’ with improved flower structure and color, attracted a lot of gardening attention when it was dubbed “Perennial Plant of the Year” by the Perennial Plant Association in 1998.
In the 1980s a white purple coneflower that came true from seed was introduced and named ‘White Swan.’ Now there are several cultivars with pure-white petals available. Double-flowered varieties then showed up on the gardening scene, like ‘Razzmatazz,’ ‘Hot Papaya,’ ‘Milkshake,’ ‘Pink Poodle’ and ‘Pink Double Delight.’ And like many plants that have been extensively bred for the bedding-plant market, dwarf coneflowers are now available that stay more compact than their wilder relatives.
Most recently, breeders have used the yellow E. paradoxa species in breeding programs to introduce a wide range of brilliantly colored flowers ranging from bright yellow to orange and even red, with shades in between.
Many of the newer Echinacea varieties are vegetatively propagated (often from tissue culture), so all plants of the same name are identical (but not their seedlings). There are also a number of good varieties that are propagated from seed. With a dizzying number of new varieties, it would be fun to try any of them in your garden.
A few years ago, a hybrid strain with E. paradoxa was developed that will bloom the first year when grown from seed. It is called ‘Cheyenne Spirit,’ and its seedlings are a mix of brightly colored red, orange, purple, cream and yellow flowers. It was named an All-American Selections National Winner in 2013. I have been growing it for several years and have been very happy with its garden performance.
Plants of the various colors other than “purple” don’t always seem to return well after a few years. I have taken seedheads from the ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ plants, and just direct-seeded them into bare areas nearby to keep the colony going. The seedlings continue to produce attractive colorful flowers in varying shades of red, orange and yellow.
Plant coneflowers in well-drained soil, giving them full sun or perhaps shade from intense late-day sun. Plant in spring through early summer. After planting, cut any flower stalks to the ground to encourage multiple shoots to develop. I know it can be tough to remove the first flowers, but the plants will establish better when given this treatment.
Even though they are quite drought-tolerant when established, they perform best with occasional irrigation during the summer in the absence of significant rainfall. A wet, cold winter will take a toll on coneflowers planted in heavy, poorly drained soils. If you have soil that tends to stay wet and want to grow coneflowers, create a berm or raised bed, incorporating composted organic matter to increase drainage.
Coneflowers can be divided every few years to increase the display of your plants and to help maintain vigor of the planting with younger plants. Coneflowers will attract all kinds of pollinators, from bees to butterflies, and even hummingbirds. It seems most of my photos of coneflowers have at least one bumblebee gathering up pollen from these colorful flowers.
Coneflowers will keep blooming throughout summer if the seedheads are cut off after flowering. Birds, especially finches, relish the seeds in the bristly dried cones. I deadhead faded blooms during the summer, but leave the last of the dried cones on the plants in the fall for the birds to feast on during the wintertime.
Besides making a great border plant in a manicured garden, coneflowers are also perfect candidates for inclusion in a prairie or meadow setting, such as the East Texas native E. sanguinea in Greg Grant’s pocket prairie at his home in deep East Texas. They make good companions in the landscape and in meadow gardens with native yellow coneflowers (Rudbeckia spp.). Coneflowers of all types also make wonderful cut flowers for arrangements.
Several years ago I was having some respiratory issues and my doctor recommended I take echinacea root to help support my immune system. That was the first I had heard of echinacea being used for health benefits. There have been many research studies looking at coneflower-root extracts for its curative properties. As many of you may already know, use of echinacea dates back centuries and was used by Native Americans to treat a wide variety of conditions. This knowledge was picked up by settlers in the New World, who also used this wildflower. Up until the advent of more modern medicines, echinacea was one of the most popular plant-prescribed remedies as late as the 1920s.
So, get some pink, purple, red, orange or yellow color into your landscape. Plant several in wide drifts to enjoy the visual impact of the wonderful native purple coneflower.