Cool and Colorful Coneflowers
Image courtesy of Ball Horticultural Co.
Give your garden a dose of long-season color with coneflowers. Known as Echinacea in botanical circles, this tough-as-nails perennial is a North American native. Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a perennial favorite in gardens, cherished for its lavender tinted petals that dangle beneath a rusty orange central cone. Plants are deer-resistant and pest-free, making them welcome guests in any landscape.
Breeding breakthroughs in coneflowers burst on the garden scene around the turn of this century, when the first double-flowered purple coneflower hit the market. These double-flowered beauties swap the traditional spiny cone for a fluffy, multi-petaled center. New colors and blossoms with fragrance followed fast on the heels of the double bloomers, relegating purple coneflower to one hue among many.
Today you can find coneflowers in many shades, including cherry red, gold, rose pink, coral and tangerine orange. Bicolor beauty abounds, as well. Look for orange and gold blends on 'Flame Thrower' coneflower or rose and orange tones in 'Big Sky Summer Sky' coneflower. 'Mamma Mia' coneflower serves up a host of hues as blossoms open and fade, including shades of red, orange, pink and coral. With bicolor coneflowers, it’s a good idea to see plants in person before purchasing. Sometimes shadings are less pronounced in person than in photos. Color tones also occasionally vary with growing conditions and regions.
Look for dwarf coneflowers with full-size flowers, such as 'Kim’s Knee-High', 'Pixie Meadowbrite' or 'Elton Knight'. The Dixie coneflowers also offer small stature and full-size flowers, along with multiple crowns per plants, which means you get even more blossoms. Dwarf coneflowers stage their show under 24 inches.
Whether you’re tending new introductions or traditional favorites, all coneflowers thrive in full sun and well-drained soil. While coneflowers become drought-tolerant once established, they’ll thrive when supplied 1 or 2 inches of water per week during the growing season. New hybrids are more sensitive to poorly draining soils in winter. Many gardeners report losing newer coneflowers in average winter conditions. The problem in these cases typically isn’t low temperatures; it’s heavy, wet winter soil. If your native soil drains poorly, amend with compost or build raised beds.
The new coneflower breeds bring even longer lasting color to the vase, thanks to more or less sterile blooms. All coneflowers attract pollinators, including beneficial insects, butterflies, bees and hummingbirds. Allow spent flowerheads to remain on plants heading into winter and you’ll be rewarded with hungry goldfinches arriving to nibble seeds.
One last note on new coneflowers: On occasion, you might spot coneflowers in your garden with cones sprouting leaves or even green petals. While it’s tempting to think you have discovered the next “new” coneflower, you’re probably just experiencing aster-yellows disease, which is caused by a phytoplasma (similar to a virus) spread by insects. Dig these affected plants and destroy them. They won’t earn you fame; they’ll simply serve as an aster-yellows source—and infect other plants.