34: Autumn 2014

Author: Rob and Diane Cole

Echinacea – the Cone Flower

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Thumbing through plant catalogues is a favourite pastime of mine, and a lot can be learnt from casual browsing about availability and the differences between cultivars of the same genus.

We have always grown the Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, in the garden, together with a few of its cultivars, but with the advent of the orange Echinacea ‘Art’s Pride’, a distinct orange colour break from the normal pinks and yellows, my interest in them began to grow. I started to look through catalogues, old books, the Plant Finder, and the internet to try to find and record as many of the species and varieties that I could, and was amazed to end up at the end of 2004 with a database of 75 entries. My database now lists a startling 268 varieties reflecting the surge of interest in hybridising – particularly in America and in Holland. Some of the earlier cultivars are now unavailable commercially, and some of the species differ only in the colour of their pollen (!), but the list is a fascinating record of the work of nurserymen seeking to raise new plants.

Echinacea purpurea, the Purple Coneflower, is the principal species and is a native of Virginia, west to Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Iowa, and south to Georgia and Louisiana and grows in prairies and dry, open woods. The daisy flowers are a pinkish red, and the petals droop around a central cone. It is attractive enough, although I always think that the drooping petals make it look as though it is wilting and sad. Other species I have encountered in my ramblings are Ee. angustifolia, pallida, paradoxa, sanguinea, simulata, and tennesseensis.

If I had to choose, I think the best of the newer purpurea selections is Echinacea ‘Ruby Glow’. The flowers are large, about 125mm across, and a deep cerise colour, and last for a long time without fading. I raised a batch of seedlings from ‘Ruby Glow’ when I first acquired it, and all the resulting seedlings were good and many were excellent, though none as strongly coloured as the parent. ‘Vintage Wine’ is another good one to look out for, as is ‘Ruby Giant’. ‘Fatal Attraction’ looks as though it might beat them all, however, having very dark stems, a dark green leaf, and dark flowers, too. It was introduced by the Dutch nurseryman, Piet Oudolf.

Most of the Echinacea purpurea cultivars grow to about 1.2m or so, but ‘Kim’s Knee High’ is shorter. The petals are somewhat drooping, and the pink has a hint of mauve in it, but it is an excellent front-of-the-border plant. It was raised in 1999 by Kim Hawks, former owner of Niche Gardens in North Carolina. It is supposed to have a green centre to the cone, but I have found this to be a transient and sporadic characteristic which only occurs as the flowers are beginning to open.

If white is your preference, there are a number of white flowered forms of E. purpurea. ‘White Swan’ is a reliable seed strain, with white petals surrounding a golden cone. A shorter growing white form is ‘Kim’s Mop Head’, introduced by Sunny Border Nurseries Inc. in America and now readily available in the UK. I think that the best white, however, is ‘Jade’, another of Piet Oudolf’s introductions. It has clear white flowers and a bright green cone, and is quite distinct.

Some of the varieties available are seed strains, such as ‘Bravado’, ‘Doubledecker’, ‘Magnus’, ‘Primadonna’, and ‘Rubinstern’, and show some variation, but growing from seed of course gives a great opportunity to select the best and the distinctly different. It would appear that very few Echinacea purpurea cultivars are the result of mutations or sports. ‘Prairie Frost’, a variegated foliage form, arose as a seedling in a batch of ‘Bravado’ being raised in 1996 by Alan Costa, a nurseryman in North Reading, Massachusetts. The plant was subsequently introduced by Dan Heims of Terra Nova Nurseries, better known for his heuchera introductions. The only ‘sport’ I have been able to track down is ‘Sparkler’, another variegated form, which arose on ‘Ruby Giant’.

The first double cultivar, Echinacea purpurea ‘Razzmatazz’, is one of those Marmite plants – you either love it or hate it! It is certainly distinctive and produces a fully double pom-pom head of pink petals without a central cone. It was found in 1997 by Jan van Winsen in Holland in a batch of Echinacea purpurea seed, and he bulked it up with the intention of supplying the cut-flower market. The plant raised no interest, however, and he was on the point of destroying the crop when it was recognised by a nurseryman friend, Marco van Noort, as being more than worthy of introduction to the ornamental sector instead. Eventually, Darwin Plants purchased the entire crop, and secured Plant Breeders rights under the name ‘Razzmatazz’.

Hybrids between the various species of Echinacea were relatively unknown, but in 1997 the Chicago Botanic Garden under the guidance of Dr Jim Ault, began to experiment by controlled crossing. Coneflowers have proved to be very promiscuous, and many of the hybrids are in turn fertile, which makes the potential for combining characteristics almost limitless. The species used in these first crosses were E. purpurea (in both pink and white forms), E. angustifolia, E. paradoxa, and E. tennesseensis.

The first hybrid to be released to gardeners was Echinacea ‘Art’s Pride’ in 2004, an Echinacea purpurea ‘Alba’ x Echinacea paradoxa cross, with bright orange flowers, and named after the financial benefactor, Art Nolan, who made the breeding research possible. The press releases all described it as a vigorous plant, but nearly every purchaser found this was not the case and quickly lost their plants. The press releases also said that it did not set seed, but I collected and sowed viable seed in 2005, and a few of the resulting 88 seedlings were selected as being good reds or oranges and were potted up to see how they fared. The remainder were mostly sent to the compost heap.

Seed from the selected potted plants was collected the following year, and so began my attempts at raising better and better colours and more vigorous long-living plants. Since the original 2005 sowing, I have raised 9,217 seedlings and selected 435 (less than 5%) as worthy of growing on to assess further. Many of these have since been discarded or lost, but in Spring 2012, a hundred of the better ones were lined out in a trial bed on the nursery to explore how they would grow in a ‘garden situation’. They have all done remarkably well, especially during the hot spell in July 2013 when the ground cracked due to the drought, but not one plant even wilted. Once I have established the best, I will start to propagate them by division.

Echinacea is an invaluable addition to the garden for Summer and Autumn colour. With us, they begin to flower in early July, and go on flowering until October, especially if they are deadheaded. They require a reasonable soil (why do all gardeners think their soil is awful?) and an open position is best, although we have found them to be also amenable to a bit of shade for part of the day.

First published in the Western Counties Group Newsletter September 2013
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 34.
© Copyright for this article: Rob and Diane Cole

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2014. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.

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