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The gardener’s guide to coneflowers

Echinacea

One in an occasional series of guides on growing popular plants. Other guides include lenten rose, peony, redbud, azalea, elephant ear, coleus, lantana, savory calamint and rudbeckia.

Nine species of coneflower are native to North America and one in particular, the purple coneflower, has been a popular choice for sunny gardens, with its showy daisylike blooms on tall stems. It is adapted to hot, humid conditions, requires relatively little care and is a mainstay of the summer garden in late June and throughout July, flowering for several weeks. It is also a favorite of pollinating insects and, once seeds are set, of goldfinches.

With so much going for it, it is no wonder that the coneflower has become one of the most popular of sun-loving perennials. As a result, breeders have produced dozens of varieties and hybrids; some have proved more reliable in the garden than others and are worth seeking out. As with other composites, the blooms consist of a central disk of fertile flowers surrounded by radiating petals called rays. The disks develop into domelike cones as they mature, taking on a distinctive orange cast.

Size

Clumps typically grow to 36 inches high and 24 to 30 inches wide and can be even larger in enriched soil. Blooms are typically four inches across.

Use and Placement

The coneflower can be used as a component in any sunny border, as an accent, or massed with other perennials as well as shrubs. Unless it is fed or watered excessively, it remains upright without a need for staking. One of its most effective roles is as an element in the stylized meadow or prairie garden. It works well with other meadow perennials, including those that bloom before, during and after the coneflower. Pair coneflowers with baptisia, rudbeckia, liatris, helenium, helianthus, goldenrod and asters, as well as grasses.

(iStock)

Coneflowers can also be grown in containers, bringing a slice of the prairie to the smallest urban garden or balcony. Shorter varieties in particular are suited to container use.

Planting and Care

A drawback of the coneflower is that it can be a short-lived perennial, but by providing optimum growing conditions and picking dependable varieties, you can keep the display going. Another way to achieve coneflower longevity is to allow plants to self-seed.

Location is important. Coneflowers do best in a bed that gets direct afternoon sunlight and in soil that is well drained, including in winter. In heavy wet soil or beds with excessive irrigation, coneflowers may decline, especially dry-loving species such as pale purple coneflower and the Tennessee purple coneflower.

Removing fading blooms will encourage a long season of flower, but at the expense of the seed heads, which draw goldfinches, are a source of new plants and have a decorative quality in fall and winter. Let some blooms go to seed.

Distorted disks are usually caused by mites, and should be cut off and bagged. Stunted growth, yellowing leaves and distorted blooms that remain green suggest the presence of a virus-like disease called aster yellows. This is an uncommon malady, but afflicted plants should by dug out and destroyed.

Varieties

A long-term study by Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, Del., ranked the best varieties, at least for the Mid-Atlantic region. Among the top dozen (of 75 evaluated) were Pica Bella, compact and floriferous; Sensation Pink, replete with bright pink-purple blooms; Glowing Dream, with tropical pink flowers and an extended bloom period, and Fragrant Angel, the highest rated white variety in the trial. Among the superior novelty color coneflowers are Sante Fe, which is a coral red; Kismet Raspberry, with luminous raspberry-pink blooms, and Postman, with oversized cones and blooms that age from crimson to watermelon pink.

The following are compact and grow to just 24 inches or less, making them good candidates for container growing: Kismet Intense Orange, Santa Fe, Julia, Sombrero Hot Coral, and Snow Cone. Snow Cone is unlike others, smothered in small but profuse white blooms.

For wildflower purists, the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a fine garden plant in settings where it can seed. An underused species is the Tennessee purple coneflower (Echinacea tennesseensis), whose pale pink petals radiate but do not overlap. Another is the pale purple coneflower (E. pallida), whose long, ribbonlike petals hang down to give a different and more natural effect. A variety named Hula Dancer grows slightly taller than the species and is better at attracting pollinators.

Echinacea Kismet Intense Orange. (Mt. Cuba Center)
Echinacea Purpurea Pica Bella. (Mt. Cuba Center)
Echinacea Snow Cone. (Mt. Cuba Center)
Echinacea Pallida Hula Dancer. (iStock)
TOP LEFT: Echinacea Kismet Intense Orange. (Mt. Cuba Center) TOP RIGHT: Echinacea Purpurea Pica Bella. (Mt. Cuba Center) BOTTOM LEFT: Echinacea Snow Cone. (Mt. Cuba Center) BOTTOM RIGHT: Echinacea Pallida Hula Dancer. (iStock)

Lead illustration by Washington Post Staff/iStock/Mt. Cuba Center. Icon illustrations by Jeannie Phan.

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