Saturday, July 29, 2017

Echinacea: Plant them for the Bees & Butterflies

There is a little bit of irony in the history of Echinacea. For one thing, it took Europeans to exploit the star potential of this North American native flower. The Germans began to make improvements on the species Echinacea purpurea in the 1960s. The flower's popularity continued to grow on through the '80s and the '90s. Then in 1989, Echinacea purpurea 'Mangus' was named Perennial Plant of the Year from the Perennial Plant Association and Echinacea became even more fashionable.

Excitement about the plant's potential really took off when a breeder in the Netherlands stumbled upon a double flowering seedling in his cut flowerbeds. That discovery eventually led to the introduction of the cultivar 'Razzmatazz' in 2003. 'Razzmatazz' was a huge success and led to further experiments leading to rather remarkable breakthroughs in enhancing the flower's color, form and scent. 


Echinacea or Coneflowers are members of the large Asteraceae family. The Echinacea genus has nine distinct species. These species are spread across the eastern and midwestern US and Canada with the greatest concentration of species located in prairie grasslands. 

The cones on an Echinacea flower are actually a collection of several hundred fertile florets. The disk florets open from the centre outward gradually releasing their pollen as they open. These disk florets are surrounded by a ring of sterile florets that we refer to as petals. The brightly colored ring of ray florets (petals) are there primarily to attract pollinators. 

Medicinal Uses

Native North Americans chewed dried Echinacea roots to treat toothaches, sore throats, coughs and infections. The root's juices were also used to treat burns, and snake and insect bites. Early North American settlers adopted some of the plant's medicinal uses and took them back to Europe in the 17th century.  

With the advent of antibiotics in the 1930s, the medicinal use of the Echinacea plant fell into a period of decline only to be rediscovered in the last fifty years. Today the global sales of Echinacea account for just under 10% of all herbal remedies. The entire plant; roots, stems, leaves and flower heads are now used in extracts, tablets and tinctures to boost the immune system and help with coughs, colds flu, fevers and infections.

Again there is an irony in all this. While the popularity of Echinacea as a medicinal plant has grown tremendously, it has at the same time begun to disappear from the wild. The numbers of native Echinacea species growing in the wild are dwindling due to loss of habitat and over-harvesting from the herbal industry. Two species E. tennesseensis and E. laevigata are now considered to be endangered.

Growing Echinacea

I wish I had more Echinacea in my garden. Perhaps because it blooms in summer, I tend to overlook it when making my spring purchases. Then July arrives and I find myself lamenting the oversight and making a last-minute purchase. High summer is a tough time for a somewhat potbound nursery plant to get going in a large garden. The soil around the root ball dries out so quickly. You really have to make an effort to water regularly or the plant will have a hard time establishing itself properly before the fall. I've managed to lose more than a few plants this way. So my first tip would be not to make my mistake and plant Echinacea in the spring! 

Otherwise, Echinacea is easy to grow. Give them full sun. I have tried them in part shade and I find they don't do nearly as well. Like most perennials, they like well-drained soil. Too much moisture can cause root rot. 

Echinacea forms a slowly expanding clump that should be divided every few years to maintain its vigour. 

The Enabling Garden in Guelph, Ontario.

In a large garden one plant has little impact, so I'd suggest planting Echinacea in drifts. Bees and butterflies will love you for it!

Echinacea purpurea 'Milkshake'

There are a couple of reasons to deadhead them regularly. It encourages more flowers, but more importantly, the fading flowers can become downright ugly depending on the variety.

Pests and Diseases

Deer will nibble on young leaves as they emerge in the spring, but tend to avoid somewhat hairy mature foliage unless they are really hungry. 

Sadly quite a number of insects can be a problem- Japanese Beetles, aphids, root borers, cutworms and tent caterpillars.

Some cultivars are susceptible to fungal diseases like powdery mildew and botrytis

Phytoplasma is a problem that is hard to prevent because it is spread by insects. Also known as "yellow asters", Phytoplasma is a bacteria that can cause the flower's cones to mutate and sprout leaves and green flowers. It eventually kills the plant.

Modern Cultivars

There seem to be so many new Echinacea cultivars it's hard to keep pace (there are over 100). The shiny new models take up prime space on the nursery benches crowding out what was last year's star and even some of the older classics. This constant change can make newer cultivars feel a little like they are "here today and gone tomorrow".

The great thing about these modern hybrids is they offer a huge choice of colors and flower forms. They have also been selected for smaller heights making them more appropriate for today's smaller gardens. 

The new cultivars offer a plant with more branching than the original species. They have reduced fertility or are sterile, so the flower holds it's color better. A drawback is there is no self-seeding.

Which cultivar you choose may depend in part on your pocketbook. These new varieties aren't cheap! Here's a look at a few of your many options:

Echinacea purpurea 'Baby Swan White' has off-white flowers and a yellow cone. Full sun. Height: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches), Spread: 30-45 cm (12-18 inches).USDA zones: 3-9.

Echinacea purpurea 'White Swan' is the taller version. It again has off-white flowers and a yellow cone. Full sun. Height: 75-90 cm (29-35 inches), Spread: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Echinacea purpurea 'Pow Wow White'  has broad white petals that overlap and a golden-yellow cone. All-American Selections Award Winner. Full sun. Height: 40-60 cm (16-23 inches), Spread: 30-40 cm (12-16 inches).USDA zones: 3-9.

Echinacea 'Glowing Dream'  has watermelon colored petals and an orange-brown cone. This selection is compact and well-branched. Full sun. Height: 40-60 cm (16-23 inches), Spread: 45-50 cm (18-20 inches).USDA zones: 3-9.

Echinacea 'Fatal Attraction' is a cultivar developed by Piet Oudolf in the Netherlands. It has flat magenta petals and a dark cone. The plant is short and bushy. Full sun. Height: 60-65 cm (23-25 inches), Spread: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Echinacea 'Southern Belle' has magenta colored pompom flowers. Full sun. Height: 50- 90 cm, Spread: 50- 75 cm. USDA Zones 4-9.

Echinacea purpurea 'Pow Wow Wildberry' has magenta petals and an orange cone. This is a mid-sized plant that was the All-American Selections Winner in 2010. Full sun. Height: 50-60 cm (20-23 inches), Spread: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Echinacea purpurea 'Butterfly Kisses' is another cultivar from the Netherlands. It has a magenta pom-pom centre and pink petals. Fragrant. Full sun. Height: 40-45 cm (16-18 inches), Spread: 40-45 cm (16-18  inches). USDA zones: 4-9.

Echinacea Sombrero 'Kim's Knee High' has drooping coral-pink petals with an orange cone. This Echinacea has a compact, bushy habit making it perfect for the front of any flower bed. Full sun. Height: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches), Spread: 30-60 cm (12-23 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.

Echinacea 'Big Kahuna' has large fragrant orange-mango flowers with an orange cone. This is a bushy plant with strong flower stems. Full sun. Height: 45-50 cm (18-20 inches), Spread: 45-50 cm (18-20 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.

Echinacea Sombrero 'Adobe Orange' (top left) has overlapping orange petals and a rusty-red cone. Sombrero 'Adobe Orange' was bred to produce lots of flowers on a compact, sturdy plant. Full sun. Height: 60-65 cm ( 23-25 inches), Spread: 40-45 cm (16-18 inches). USDA zones: 5-9.

Echinacea 'Supreme Cantaloupe' (top right) has cantaloupe colored ray petals on the outside of the flower with rosy-red ray petals at the centre. Full sun. Height: 55-65 cm (21-25 inches), Spread: 35-40 cm (14-16 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.

Echinacea 'Tiki Torch' has orange petals with a red-brown cone. Full sun. Height: 75-80 cm (29-31 inches), Spread: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.

Echinacea 'Hot Papaya' has a centre pompom and long hanging reddish-orange petals. As the flower ages, the pompom develops into a more golden-papaya color. Echinacea 'Hot Papaya' begins blooming mid-summer and will continue to bloom into the late summer if the spent flowers are removed. Attractive to butterflies. Full sun. Height:75-90 cm (29-35 inches) Spread:40-60 (18-23 inches) USDA zones:4-9.

Echinacea 'Now Cheesier'

Echinacea 'Cleopatra' has fragrant, single to semi-double flowers with lemon-yellow petals and a peach cone. Full sun. Height: 40-45 cm (16-18 inches), Spread: 30-40 cm (12-16 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.

Echinacea x hybrida 'Sombrero Lemon Yellow' has overlapping golden-yellow petals with a golden-brown cone. The Sombrero series was bred to be compact plants with a high bud count. Full sun. Height: 60-65 cm (23-25 inches), Spread: 40-55 cm (16-21 inches). USDA zones: 4-9.

 Mira's garden in Guelph, Ontario

Lucy Maud Montgomery Norval, ON

Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens

You may not have to look far to find companion plants. Other varieties of Echinacea in varying colors can look quite attractive when massed together.

Rudbeckia in a public garden.

Lucy Maud Montgomery Norval, ON

Other kinds of daisy-type flowers, like Helenium and Rudbeckia, also work nicely with Echinacea. Heleniums are taller than many types of Echinacea, so plant them in behind. Rudbeckia tends to be a little shorter than Echinacea, so they look great planted to the front. 

Rudbeckia 'Goldstrum' has golden-yellow flowers with a black centre. It is easily grown in average garden soil. 'Goldstrum'  likes sun, but is also happy in light shade. Removing spent flowers will prolong the display of blooms into the autumn. This perennial has a slow spreading habit but is easy to remove where unwanted. Height: 60-75 cm ( 23-29 inches), Spread: 45-60 cm (18-23 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Mira's garden in Guelph, Ontario

Globe Thistles are another plant that is a great bee magnet. They bloom mid-summer and make a nice companion plant for pink varieties of Echinacea.

Globe Thistle, Echinops ritro have grey-green leaves and a ball-shaped flower that is steely-blue. Unlike weedy thistles, these are well-behaved plants that don't spread uncontrolled. Well-drained, average garden soil and moisture conditions are perfect for these plants. Full sun. Height: 90-120 cm ( 35-47 inches), Spread: 60-75 cm (23-29 inches). USDA zones: 2-9.

Joe's garden in Brampton, Ontario. See more of this garden here.

Liatris and Phlox 'Niky' on the right.

Other companion plants include:

• Phlox paniculata
• Sedum
• Liatris
• Ornamental Grasses like Miscanthus
• Daylilies

To end this post, I must confess that there is a simple charm in the nine native species of Echinacea that has been overshadowed by some of these new flashy hybrids. There is an uncomplicated purity of form in the original that is in danger of disappearing.

It sometimes makes me wonder if we have lost sight of what we liked about Echinacea flowers in the first place.

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  1. Love, love, love Echinacea! The daisy-like form is so happy, but what does it for me are the colours deep orange and confident pink side by side. Love how the orange fiercely thrusts upward towards the sun! I like the native species best, but with enough garden to cover I'd probably try a hybrid or two as well.
    On an aside - saw some gorgeous blue-purple wild Irises up in Lake Superior Provincial Park. Not as big as bearded hybrids but very pretty indeed. And unexpected!
    Happy Summer!

    1. Hi Ruth, I hope your having a happy summer as well. The irises must have been wonderful to come across in the provincial park. Bigger is not always better.

  2. I just love these flowers, Jennifer! We have lots of them, and year after year, they never disappointment. I've never seen the 'Milkshake' var!iety, and it's really beautiful. Will have to look for it here.
    Have a wonderful week

    1. If you can't find 'Milkshake' Lisa, you might also like Echinacea purpurea 'Meringue' or Echinacea purpurea 'Coconut Lime'. They both look quite similar.

  3. Being a coneflower lover, Jennifer, this post is a visual treat! Although the newer cultivars are pretty and often more showy, I still love the original Echinacea Purpurea the best. It's one plant I can always count on to return--with babies--every year, and the pollinators love it. I do have 'Cheyenne Spirit,' which is an orange/yellow/pinkish coneflower, which has also done well for me.

    1. I love Echinacea purpurea despite all the competition it gets from modern hybrids. It's hard to beat a classic.

  4. I love echinacea but unfortunately mine are subject to yellow asters disease. We removed a whole lot of them a few years back but they return and the disease is still there. I planted a disease free drift in another area of the garden and they are doing well so far. Stunning pictures, Jennifer. P. x

    1. Thanks Pam! I have a run-in with yellow asters disease myself. I ended up removing the plants in the front garden and haven't noted it elsewhere thank goodness!


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