By Cindy Gilberg
Every sunny garden should include a number of very hardy and extremely reliable perennials. Coneflowers (Echinacea) have earned a place of prominence due to their dependable performance in Midwest gardens. Even most non-gardeners recognize the name Echinacea since the name and a picture of the flower appears on herbal supplement bottles everywhere. Its medicinal qualities are much esteemed among herbalists as an immune system booster.
The spiny center of the flower prompted the name Echinacea. From the Greek word echinos, meaning spiny, also comes the word echinoderm which includes such creatures as sea urchins. Echinaceas are exclusively a temperate North American species with no representatives anywhere else in the world. All coneflowers bloom in shades of pink, with the exception of the yellow coneflower, E. paradoxa. Soil type (rich to average vs. poor) plays an important role in the ultimate height of and success with coneflowers. Their height is predominantly three feet although I have seen six foot tall purple coneflowers growing in very rich compost.
There are four species native to Missouri, three of which commonly grow in glades – the pale coneflower (Echinacea pallida), the yellow coneflower (E. paradoxa) and the glade coneflower (E. simulata). Because a glade has rocky, thin soil in full sun, these drought tolerant (actually drought dependent!) species are excellent choices for use in rock gardens and areas with poor, gravelly soil where watering is a problem. Since they depend on and thrive in these conditions, a rich organic soil is detrimental and causes tall lanky plants that flop over and lack vigor. In other words, don’t kill them with kindness when it comes to soil prep, match them instead to a soil in which they can flourish.
The purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), the one most commonly found at garden centers, is the easiest of the species to grow in amended garden soils. It is happy in loam soils and prefers average moisture. For that reason it is not a drought tolerant species. It grows naturally in open woodlands and lowland prairies making it a great choice for light dappled shade spots.
Nectar and pollen are abundant in coneflowers. The flat shape of the flower with its prominent cone makes a landing pad for all sorts of butterflies, bees and other pollinating insects. In the fall the seed heads become a flurry of activity as goldfinches and other seed eating birds come to feast on the thistle-like seed. As a result, the question of whether to deadhead becomes an issue. Some will deadhead only half of the flowers leaving some to provide seed for the birds.
For maximum success, plant other glade species with those coneflowers endemic to glades. As always, great plant combination’s are what makes a garden outstanding. Contrast is the key, therefore coneflower neighbors should not include other daisy type blooms such as Shasta daisies, false sunflowers, etc. Try instead orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and blazing star (Liatris) – both have contrasting foliage and different bloom structures. Other glade species to plant with these coneflowers includes beauties such as the showy beardtongues (P. cobaea and P. grandiflora). The purple tubular flowers attract and are pollinated by not only native bees but hummingbirds as well. Another showy, hummingbird magnet is fire pink (Silene virginica), particularly attractive for its brilliant red flowers. Grasses like little bluestem or prairie dropseed provide a wonderfully soft texture that blends well with coneflowers in a garden setting. Missouri evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa) and rose verbena (Glandularia canadensis) offer a short stature and are a welcome sight along the front of the garden.
Always looking for new cultivars of reliably hardy perennials prompted plant breeders such as Bobby and Richard Saul of Itsaul Plants to go “Cone Crazy”. Their work has introduced cultivars with like ‘Sundown’, ‘Twilight’ and ‘Sunrise’. All those gorgeous, unusual colors of coneflowers arise from cross pollination among the native species. This happens only occasionally in nature because of the variations in bloom times and habitat.
A final note in praise of coneflowers is that they have a pleasantly mild, sweet fragrance and are delightful cut flowers. Add up all their attributes and the result is a must-have plant that is easy to grow.
Cindy Gilberg, horticulturist and Missouri native, founded and ran the garden center at Gilberg Perennial Farms with her husband Doug for 28 years, also teaching classes and workshops on gardening and garden design. She now focuses on garden design, consulting and teaching, and also works part-time in the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve, emphasizing the use of native plants in home landscaping.