by Jan Cashman
Echinacea can be classified as an herb or a perennial flower native to North American. Echinacea’s herbal uses go back to the Native Americans, who used various species of it for medicinal purposes to aid ailments such as snakebite and anthrax and for pain relief. Today, herbalists claim Echinacea can ward off and/or shorten the duration of the common cold, boost the immune system, even fight infections such as bronchitis. Health food stores are full of extractions of Echinacea, some taken from the root, others from the flower or whole plant.
Most of us are not growing or using Echinacea for its herbal qualities, but plant it in our perennial flower gardens for its beauty and ease of growth. Echinacea purpurea or purple coneflower is a tall (24-36”) perennial flower with a pronounced central cone. It is hardy and blooms from mid-summer into fall. The standard variety has purple flowers (really pinkish-purple), but the blooms can also be white and lately new colors have been bred. Purple coneflowers are good for cutting, and attract hummingbirds and butterflies. They will tolerate drought, heat, and wind. They have few pests and deer don’t like them. They thrive in full sun as long as they have well-drained soil.
The name ‘Echinacea’ comes from the Greek work ‘echino’, which means ‘spiny’ because the central disk of the flower is spiny. In some places, the Echinacea flower was nicknamed ‘Droopy’ because the petals of this daisy-like flower tend to droop. There are ten species of Echinacea; all are native to the eastern half of the United States.
Along with Heucheras , Gaillardia, and upright Sedums, purple coneflowers are trendy these days, and, because they are so popular, plant breeders have developed many new varieties. Some new varieties are shorter, more compact plants. Others have new flower colors, are double, or have unusual shapes with less petal drooping. Many of these new Echinaceas are wonderfully fragrant. Here are some exciting and interesting new varieties:
Magnus is one of the best new Echinaceas because of its rosy-purple blooms that don’t droop. It has a dark rose-colored center. Magnus was the 1998 Perennial Plant of the Year.
Little Magnus is shorter, growing to only 18” for smaller gardens.
Big Sky Series
This series of Echinaceas has fragrant flowers with large blooms in unusual colors. Some hardiness may have been lost in this series; their hardiness zone is listed as 5. Some of my favorites from the ‘Big Sky’ series:
Sunrise has large, bright yellow, fragrant flowers with a golden green cone and drooping petals.
After Midnight has dark reddish-purple blooms with a huge, black cone.
Twilight is a favorite of mine because of its coral-colored petals and red cone. It has a rose-like fragrance.
Doubledecker Echinacea has a bizarre appearance with two layers of petals, one around the top of its large, orange cone and one around the bottom where the petals usually are.
This new series of Echinacea is cleverly named after foods. Hopefully, the Cone-fection Echinacea will prove to be as hardy as the standard.
Coconut Lime has an unusual shape with a double, creamy-white pompom flower and a pale lime green cone.
Mac and Cheese
Mac and Cheese is another beauty with a great name! It has huge flowers have pure, golden-yellow, spidery-thin petals.
Tomato Soup has huge flowers that are a stunning red-orange color.
You don’t have to be an herbalist to plant hardy, sun-loving Echinacea in your perennial garden. With all the new varieties, you can find the color, shape, and height you want and enjoy this beautiful, trouble-free plant.