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Echinacea — an attractive, long-blooming plant

Flowers start in early July and continue through late summer and well into September

By early July, purple coneflowers will be in full bloom and will continue to blossom right through late summer and well into September. This attractive perennial, whose proper name is Echinacea purpurea, will dependably add colour to the landscape, being one of the longest-blooming plants in the perennial border. Echinacea flowers also have a long vase life, so are perfect for use in arrangements. The blooms that are not cut can be left on the plants even after they fade, as the seed heads will add interest to the winter garden. They can also be used in fall dried arrangements.

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The large raised central cone of the purple coneflower bloom is the feature that gives it its name, as “echinos” in Greek means hedgehog and the spiky brown cones do indeed resemble hedgehogs. When immature and during active bloom time the cones are tinged orange but the seed heads mature to a dark brown. These plants are easy to grow and their deep fibrous root system makes them remarkably drought tolerant and able to draw nutrients from deep in the soil. They will, however, need water during hot, dry spells because the plants do tend to wilt if they get too dry during the heat of midsummer.

Echinacea can be used in mixed perennial borders or mass planted in a small bed. The flowers appear at the tops of the plants so can have shorter plants in front (such as lobelia or dwarf marigolds) to add contrast. Although purple coneflowers are touted to be tough plants, in Zone 2b where I live they struggle to survive the winter and are short-lived perennials. With some winter protection they have a better survival rate.

If you plan to grow from seed, start early enough so that the plants are a good size come planting-out time. This way you’ll get lots of flowers before frost finally cuts the plants down. If they do not make it through the winter you’ll only be out the cost of the seed. I find it too costly to purchase new plants from a garden centre every spring so if I want Echinacea in my garden I grow from seed.

Echinacea should be grown in full sun where they will be vigorous and strong stemmed. There are many varieties of purple coneflower and the one I grow from seed, E. purpurea “Magnus,” is an old variety that produces dusty rose-pink single flowers whose ray petals are somewhat drooping in appearance. When the buds first open, the petals are horizontal, but as the flowers age the petals begin to droop. Echinacea is a self-supporting perennial; the stems are strong and wiry, so rarely need any support. “Magnus” is probably the hardiest strain of Echinacea, and often self-seeds.

Plant breeders have been developing new varieties but seed for most is not available, only plants, as they are hybrids and do not come true when grown from seed. One of the new varieties, E. purpurea “Razzmatazz,” is similar in colour to “Magnus” but is fully double. An outer ring of short single petals surrounds a cushion of fine petals in the centre of each bloom, and even though there is no “cone,” it is still technically a coneflower. Another double variety is “Double Delight.” A newer, double white variety called “Coconut Lime” has blooms very much like those of “Razzmatazz.” An outer ring of white petals surrounds a central pompom of pale-green florets, although the centre of the pompom still has the telltale tinges of orange similar to the older varieties. The blooms have a pleasant fragrance. Some of these newer varieties such as “Sundown” (an orange variety), “Sunrise” (yellow), and “Twilight” (a rose-pink cultivar), all have flowers with a pleasant scent. This is one advantage the newer Echinacea have over the old “Magnus” variety, which has little or no scent.

An unusual-looking new variety is the “Double Decker,” which has one single pink bloom sitting on top of another. “White Swan” is probably the most common white Echinacea and it has single flowers with the typical orange-tinged cone in the centre.

If you didn’t include any Echinacea in your garden this spring, perhaps you will buy one or two plants and put them in a couple of gaps you’ve noticed in your perennial borders. Larger garden centres may still have a few. Then next year you could start your own from seed and I think you’ll agree that Echinacea is a worthwhile addition to any garden.

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