A staple summer perennial in most parts of the country, purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) have recently become trendy and upmarket, embellishing the flower and cottage gardens of celebrated gardeners and horticulturists from Maine to Washington. Most gardeners are familiar with these single, pinkish-purple (sometimes white) daisies with sweptback petals (ray flowers) surrounding a central, prickly, raised brown or orange cone of disk flowers that give the plant its name—Echinacea comes from the Greek echinos, meaning “hedgehog.” The flower heads, borne singly on strong, unbranched stems, make fine cut flowers, both fresh and dried. Purple coneflowers, along with hybrids and selections with white, yellow, orange, green, tomato-red, or deep purple flowers, are widely available; some are fragrant. Breeding programs have recently exploded, releasing plants with anemonetype, fully double flowers with pom-poms or fluffy topknots of ray flowers surrounded by a fringe of more traditional “petals.” Depending on the selection, ray flowers are skinny or wide, overlapping or not, strongly reflexed or held horizontally.
Many new introductions are hybrids of E. purpurea with pink coneflower (E. pallida, 24–30 inches tall, Zones 3–10), fragrant yellow Ozark coneflower (E. paradoxa, 36 inches tall, Zones 4–9), and/or yellow Tennessee native (E. tennesseensis, 24 inches tall, Zones 5–6). Coneflowers belong to the huge aster family (Asteraceae), along with black-eyed Susans, Shasta daisies, and dandelions. Purple coneflowers, sometimes called Eastern purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea, 3–5 feet tall, Zones 3–8), are native in the Eastern United States from Florida to Texas, all the way north into Canada. Other species reach across the Midwest, where winters are frigid, so gardens in most regions are hospitable. The common denominator among purple coneflowers is an intolerance for winter wetness. It is frequently lethal, and many, especially new introductions, have succumbed to root rot, unfairly giving these plants a reputation for not being hardy. The trick is to plant coneflowers early in the season, giving them time to build up a good root system before winter. If there is a chance the roots will become waterlogged, plant the coneflowers high. Established plants tolerate drought, heat, and wind.
Echinacea makes the most impact when planted in groups of three, five, or seven in flower borders; in drifts among shrubs; or massed in native plant, wild, and wildlife gardens. At the front to midsection of sunny borders, try singleflower, semidwarf, deep rosy-pink Kim’s Knee High and ‘White Swan’ (both Zones 3–9). ‘Lilliput’ and Little Magnus (both Zones 4–9) are other short choices. These work well for container plantings, too; fine companions include short daylilies, Salvia × sylvestris ‘East Friesland’, and upright-spike speedwells (Veronica spicata) ‘Blue Fox’ or ‘Snow White’. Use taller Mango Meadowbright (Zones 4–9), Orange Meadowbright (Zones 4–8), and others as foundation plantings, at the back of a border, or along with shrubs, including variously colored bush cinquefoils (Potentilla fruticosa), Weigela, and viburnums. Single, white-flower Fragrant Angel (Zones 3–9) is perfect for a fragrance garden or under a window, along with green-white Coconut Lime and intense orange ‘Tiki Torch’ (both Zones 4–9), among many others. To some people, the fragrance is unpleasant, but bees, birds, and butterflies are attracted by it. In wild and wildlife gardens, it is more productive and more pleasing aesthetically to stick to plain-Jane single-flower varieties, perhaps with grasses, sundrops (Oenothera), bee balms (Monarda), and blazing stars (Liatris) as companions.
Wherever you decide to plant purple coneflowers, you will be rewarded with plenty of colorful blossoms for several months, enhanced by the winged wonders that visit them.
Common names: Purple coneflower, Eastern purple coneflower
Botanical name: Echinacea purpurea, hybrids and cultivars
Height: 2–4 feet tall; 1–2 feet wide
Hardiness: Zones 3–9
Bloom time: summer into early fallConditions: Full sun or light shade; average to fertile, well-drained soil. Established plants tolerate drought well, but not wet feet in winter.
Best features: Plenty of long-blooming, butterfly-attracting single daisy flowers accented by a raised brown or orange central cone are borne on strong stems and decorate the garden for many weeks. The species has purplish-pink or white flowers. Many cultivars and hybrids display flowers of orange, yellow, green, pink, and white; some are bicolored. Double-flower selections are exciting and usually come in white or purplish-pink. Dark brown seed cones provide winter food for seed-eating wildlife.
Problems: Go lightly on foliage-promoting fertilizer; for strong stems that do not flop, plants are best grown lean and hungry, eliminating the need for staking, even on tall varieties. Deer seldom browse purple coneflowers, but rabbits can be pesky. Pests and diseases are usually minor, although Japanese beetles can become a nuisance. Grow species from seed—this is especially valuable where large numbers are necessary for a mass or meadow planting. Self-seeding is common, although more often seeds are spread by birds, particularly goldfinches, that feed on the seed in late fall. To increase hybrids and selections, divide in spring when new growth appears.
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