Echinacea at CMBG
Echinacea is one of our favorite plants for attracting bees and butterflies to the garden in July and August. Twenty years ago most gardeners in the Northeast had never even heard of Echinacea. Then in 1998 Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’ with its extra-large, rosy-purple flowers, and long bloom time, was named Perennial Plant of the Year by the perennial Plant Association. For the next 10 years we saw the occasional new variety, selections of Echinacea purpurea in shades of pink to white, a pretty but limited palette.
Then a half-dozen savvy plant breeders started to produce colorful hybrids – crosses among three of the nine native species in the genus: Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Yellow coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa), and Blacksamson coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) – and voila, gardener hysteria ensued. Plain purple turned into every color of the rainbow; red, orange, yellow, green, white, and even crazy double deckers. Within five short years we went from having a handful of varieties to over 60 to choose from!!
Species vs. hybrids
Given the right growing conditions (dry, rocky, fire-prone grasslands) some of the straight species including Echinacea pallida (pale pink drooping petals) and Echinacea tennesseensis (upturned petals) perform better than the hybrids in tough hot spots and naturalize well. However, here in the Champlain Valley we have rich, wet clay so we are better off sticking with Echinacea purpurea which prefers damp or even wet prairies and has a fibrous root system versus the taproot of the drier soil adapted species. When we are designing pollinator meadows there are arguments for sticking with the straight species (see the blog post ‘Nativars’), but there are also scenarios when a design benefits greatly from bold color, even if it comes from a native hybrid, so the trick is choosing which of the 60 varieties is best for our gardens.
Top 7 Hybrids for VT
I’ve waded through the results of the Mt. Cuba Center Echinacea research trial and will list here the best coneflowers that are hybrids of Echinacea purpurea for you to try - one for each color, along with some tips for growing them successfully. These varieties were selected based on their longevity, habit, and disease resistance. Some of them can be difficult to find locally so I’ve listed a runner-up as well. Here we go:
Purple – short 20″ – ‘Pixie Meadowbright’ – compact clump, fragrant, repeat bloomer June-Sept, can be grown in a container or at the front of the border.
Purple – medium/tall 36-40″ – ‘Ruby Giant’ and ‘Ruby Star’ – similar to Magnus but taller and more vigorous, with a bold, brighter effect than other varieties
White – ‘Fragrant Angel’ - double rows of petals are held horizontally. The tall, vigorous plants are strongly branched and flower profusely all summer long. Makes a great cut flower, (runner-up ‘White Swan’)
Yellow – ‘Sunrise’ – dense form, rose scented, citron yellow flowers blooms all summer, central cone changes from green to gold, tight mounded foliage.
Orange – ‘Tiki Torch’ – 24″ stocky plants, pumpkin-orange, fragrant bloom July-Sept. (runner-up is ‘Sundown’, but not as cold-hardy, can be prone to flop and ‘aster yellow disease’)
Lime – ‘Green Envy’ – very unusual, flowers open green with green centers and with time, develop the typical coneflower rose-purple tones at the base giving an interesting ever-changing display. (‘Coconut Lime’ is also worth trying for its double decker form).
Red Double – ‘Red Papaya’ progresses from a single pale orange flower to a bright orange-red shaggy mop-head flower.
Echinacea ‘Sundown’ at Linden Farm
To learn more about both the native Echinaceas and the interspecific crosses you can read Bill Cullina’s very informative post on the subject.
7 Great Echinaceas for VT
Echinacea is one of our favorite plants for attracting bees and butterflies to the garden in July and August.