Friday, March 26, 2010

Coneflowers! (Part 1)

Coneflowers. The word conjures up images of masses of purple blooms, bees and butterflies, and relaxing on the patio with a lemonade; content with how easy to grow they are. But are they? I want to review some of the readily available Echinacea species and hybrids and give the information you need to grow them successfully. This is Part 1, which covers a little background of some lesser (but still easily found) available species.

Coneflowers in the genus Echinacea are all native to North America, mostly to the Midwestern states. They have a long history of medicinal use, dating back more than 400 years, for treating infections, wounds, scarlet fever, syphilis, malaria, blood poisoning, and diphtheria. Today people use Echinacea for treating cold and flu symptoms, and much research supports (and almost as much refutes) their immune-boosting effects.

Echinacea pallida
Pale Purple Coneflower has pale lavender petals that droop from a large central cone. The growing requirements are similar to E. purpurea and it grows in clay soils just as well. The stems are fairly sturdy on this species, but tend to grow up and out from the center of the plant which gives it a different look than Purple Coneflower, which tends to grow more vertically. This great often overlooked garden plant is the only species native here in WI and is state listed as threatened.

Echinacea angustifolia
Narrow-Leaf Coneflower is mostly grown for its herbal properties, but is occasionally found as a garden plant. It is similar to E. pallida but smaller, growing only 1-2’ tall. It does not share the adaptability of E. purpurea or E. pallida, and requires well drained soil to really thrive.

Echinacea tennesseensis
Tennessee Coneflower is found in only 3 counties of Tennessee and is federally endangered. ‘Rocky Top Hybrids’ is a seed strain that is commercially available and may not be genetically pure. The plant is smaller than E. purpurea reaching only 2’ in height and has smaller flowers with upturned petals. This variety re-blooms well and is a pretty good garden performer. It does not like heavy clay, but will grow but not thrive in it. It doesn’t have the strict requirement of well drained soil like E. angustifolia or E. paradoxa, and average soil suits it just fine.

Echinacea paradoxa
Yellow Coneflower is found in Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas. This is the oddity in the genus for having yellow flowers rather than lavender or purple. Flowers droop from a large brown central cone, and are produced on relatively weak stems. It also requires well drained soil, and does not thrive in clay. In my clay-loam soil plants have lasted a few years, but never thrive and eventually die out. It is also slightly less hardy than the others, but still hardy to zone 5. I believe with the right conditions, it will probably survive zone 4 without any problems. E. paradoxa is one of the parents for the many hybrids that have stormed the market lately.

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