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Gardening 101: Coneflower

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Gardening 101: Coneflower

June 27, 2018

Coneflower, Echinacea: “Prairie Home Companion”

When I think of coneflowers I imagine a country hill scattered with flowers, and then I see Laura Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie running between the pretty stalks and brushing through dusty colored grasses. Echinacea really is a quintessential prairie flower so I am not too far off, but you should also know that the quaint image doesn’t stop on the homestead; coneflowers incorporate quite well into more contained, urban gardens.

Please keep reading to learn more about this versatile flower.

In a Maine seaside garden by Thomas Lynch Design, native Echinacea pallida is planted among Schizachyrium scoparium ‘The Blues’. See more of this garden in our   Considered Design Awards. Photograph courtesy of Thomas Lynch Design.
Above: In a Maine seaside garden by Thomas Lynch Design, native Echinacea pallida is planted among Schizachyrium scoparium ‘The Blues’. See more of this garden in our 2017 Considered Design Awards. Photograph courtesy of Thomas Lynch Design.

Native to North America with a family of about 10 species, Echinacea originates from open wooded areas and dry plains. The most popular and most easily grown variety is Echinacea purpurea. The wilder varieties, unfortunately, have a long tap root that makes it harder for them to thrive in a regular garden settling. Echinaea purpurea, on the other hand, has fibrous roots, which allows the plant to accommodate different soil conditions and also makes it a great candidate for dividing and transplanting.

A perfect color palette: Asclepias tuberosa, Echinacea pallida, and Liatris scariosa mingle in a Maine meadow, attracting pollinators. See more of this garden in our  Considered Design Awards. Photograph courtesy of Thomas Lynch Design.
Above: A perfect color palette: Asclepias tuberosa, Echinacea pallida, and Liatris scariosa mingle in a Maine meadow, attracting pollinators. See more of this garden in our 2017 Considered Design Awards. Photograph courtesy of Thomas Lynch Design.

Because I love stories about plants’ origins, I will mention that the genus Echinacea was named by the 18th-century German botanist Conrad Moench: The Greek word echinos—meaning hedgehog—described the flower’s spiky, round seed head that reminded him of a hedgehog. The common name, coneflower, refers to the way the petals are arranged away from the center, sort of backwards, as the center forms a cone.

Echinacea varieties and hazy purple Perovskia atriplicifolia (Russian sage) mingle in Dutch designer Piet Oudolf&#8
Above: Echinacea varieties and hazy purple Perovskia atriplicifolia (Russian sage) mingle in Dutch designer Piet Oudolf’s garden at Hummelo. Photograph courtesy of My Garden School. See more at Garden Design: Learning to Plant the Piet Oudolf Way.

The flowers once only came in shades of purple with dark centers, but because of hybridization you can now find petal colors in all sorts of sherbet shades: orange, yellow, red, lime green, and white. These new hybrids are a tad more finicky and demand more organic matter at planting time. Also, coneflowers are often described as drought tolerant, but I find that that with a little more water you get a more floriferous plant and lusher leaves, especially with the hybrids.

Echinacea purpurea &#8
Above: Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’ blooms on the High Line in New York City. Photograph by Elvert Barns via Flickr.

Some of my favorite varieties include Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’ (orange centers ringed with deep purple petals) and E. purpurea ‘White Swan’ (relaxed snow white petals surround a copper orange cone).

Cheat Sheet

  • Easily grown from stock, seed, or division. If grown from seed, Echinacea might flower the first year if seeds are sown early in the season. If grown from nursery stock, I recommend planting in the spring or fall.
  • Plant with other likeminded prairie plants such as yarrow, rudbeckia, and ornamental grasses. Or go in the opposite direction and plant coneflowers in a cottage garden where they mingle with daisies, roses, and hydrangeas.
  • A pollinator lure. The flowers are rich in late-season nectar, which butterflies and bees appreciate and devour. Also deer-resistant once established, but I have found coneflowers to get nibbled after being freshly planted.
E. purpurea &#8
Above: E. purpurea ‘White Swan’. Photograph by Patrick Standish via Flickr.

Keep It Alive

  • To get the best flower production and stems that don’t lean for sunlight, plant coneflowers in full sun with good air circulation (otherwise mildew can form on the leaves and slugs and snails can be bothersome).
  • The stalks can grow to a variety of heights depending on the variety you choose and the soil conditions, but generally they hover around two feet high and wide. Dwarf varieties exist but I am partial to the taller types.
  • Blooming begins in mid-summer and repeats through the fall months if deadheaded. Tip: Toward the end of the season, I try to leave some seed heads through the winter so the birds have a snack.  Then, in the spring I shear them back, which makes a bushier plant that blooms longer into the season.

For more growing tips, see Coneflowers: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design. For long-lasting perennials to add color to a late-season summer garden, see our curated Garden Design 101 guides to our favorite Perennials, including Asters 101 and Salvia. Read more:

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