Purple Coneflowers: Native Grace and Beauty in the Garden

Echinacea purpurea Magnus with Perovskia and LavandulaangustifoliaEchinacea purpurea Magnus with Perovskia and Lavandula angustifolia

The genus Echinacea (Purple Coneflower) is a family of wildflowers native to North America. These wonderful plants have many uses both ornamentally and medicinally. And their value as a pollen and nectar source for butterflies and bumblebees is more important than ever.

The Native Americans were the first to use the roots and leaves of Echinacea to treat various maladies. And the use of Echinacea as a medicinal plant continues today with numerous tinctures and teas. Ornamentally, it was the Europeans that first began to make improved selections for use in horticulture. In the past ten years there has been an explosion of breeding activity in the US and Europe, first ignited by the work of Jim Ault at the Chicago Botanic Garden. His use of Echinacea paradoxa to cross breed with pink and purple species created the first orange flowered hybrid.

Echinacea paradoxaEchinacea paradoxa

Echinacea thrive in our gardens when provided with well drained soils, plenty of sunshine and moderate to dry moisture conditions depending on the species and cultivars. Though not a long lived plant, healthy individual Coneflowers will grow in the garden for 3 to 5 years. Species and cultivars raised from seed will often reseed themselves to continue their presence in our gardens.

This genus is invaluable for the mid- to late-summer garden, bringing color into our plantings when many spring bloomers have gone green for the season. Recommended companion plants for Purple Coneflowers include Lavender, Gaillardia, ornamental Oregano, Goldenrod and tall Sedum.

Catalog plant buyers are no doubt acquainted with the profusion of orange, yellow and double flowered selections (that I refer to as “Poodle” coneflowers) have come onto the market. I have not had much success with most of these new hybrids as they require perfect growing conditions both in the greenhouse and in the landscape. Here in the Intermountain West and Southwest our climate is too dry, windy and unpredictable for these tender prima donnas to do well. I recommend planting seed grown or division propagated Coneflowers for best success, as these plants retain their native toughness in the landscape.

Echinacea purpurea with Agastache 'Blue Fortune' Echinacea purpurea with Agastache 'Blue Fortune'

My favorite seed grown varieties include:

  • The huge flowered, deep rose-pink colored Echinacea purpurea ‘Rubinstern’ (‘Ruby Star’).
  • ‘Magnus,’ the Perennial Plant of the Year in 1998, is renowned for its huge pink flowers with petals that radiate horizontally out from the center cone.
  • The enigmatic Echinacea paradoxa (Yellow Coneflower) has brilliant yellow petals (hence the “paradox” of belonging to the Purple coneflowers family. An uncommon plant in nature, it is a durable and easily grown garden plant.
  • And finally I’m very keen on Echinacea pallida ‘Hula Dancer’. This graceful cultivar has long, thin pale pink petals that fold backwards from the center cone like a grass skirt on a Hawaiian hula dancer. Deep rooted and more watewise than the Echinacea purpurea types, ‘Hula Dancer’ is a delight.

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