Purple Coneflowers: Native Grace and Beauty in the Garden

Echinacea purpureais (Purple Coneflower) is a great plant for attracting and feeding pollinators and hummingbirds

by David Salman

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 purpureais (Purple Coneflower) is invaluable for the mid- to late-summer garden 

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.

Plant buyers may be acquainted with the profusion of orange, yellow, and double-flowered selections that 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.

Recommended Companion Plants for Echinacea (Purple Coneflowers)

David's Favorite Varieties of Purple Coneflower:

  • The huge flowered, deep rose-pink colored Echinacea purpurea ‘Rubinstern’ (‘Ruby Star’).
  • Echinacea purpurea Magnus, or Magnus Purple Coneflower, 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 (Ozark 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.

The enigmatic Echinacea paradoxa (Ozark Coneflower) has brilliant yellow petals

Echinacea purpurea Magnus (Magnus Purple Coneflower) is renowned for its huge pink flowers

How to Start Echinacea (Purple Coneflower) from Seed

If you’re someone who likes to grow plants for your garden from seed, the Echinacea are easy-to-germinate. And their seedlings are easy-to-grow. The seeds require no pre-treatment (like cold stratification or scarification).

Tip: Use a soil-less seed germinating mix, not real soil, and sow the seeds into small containers. I like to use bedding plant packs as they are not too deep or too wide. Plastic quart yogurt containers or milk cartons are too large! A smaller, shallower container is easiest to maintain even moisture. Soggy pots with too much soil-less mix will rot out young seedlings.

  1. First, fill the bedding packs with the germinating mix and water thoroughly. 
  2. Sow the Echinacea seeds onto the surface of the germinating mix, taking care not to overlap them onto each other. 
  3. Cover lightly with about an eighth of an inch of the germinating mix and gently firm. 
  4. Put the bedding packs into an inflated plastic bag on a bright window sill.

The seeds will begin to germinate in about 7 to 10 days. You shouldn’t need to water them until after the seeds have germinated and it’s time to remove the plastic bag. When the container feels light, water by setting it into a shallow pan of water and letting the soil-less mix soak it up (bottom watering).

Transplanting

Once the seedlings have filled the cells of the bedding packs and their roots have grown to the sides of the soil, they are ready to transplant.

  1. Plant individual seedlings into a cell of the bedding pack using the germinating mix and place on a sunny windowsill. 
  2. Mist the leaves of your new transplants with a liquid seaweed and fish emulsion mix right after transplanting and repeat daily two or three times. 
  3. After a couple of weeks or so, consider moving them outside in a protected morning sun/afternoon shade location. Start with an hour of sun and gradually move them into more sun as they grow.
  4. To water, lift the pots to feel if they’re light and bottom water. Mix a small amount of liquid seaweed and fish emulsion into the water to fertilizer. 
  5. They will be ready to transplant into the garden in about 12 weeks, or when they are fully rooted in their individual cells. Pay careful attention to watering in their new outdoor location and be sure to mulch adequately to protect their roots.

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