Rugged beauties, daisies on steroids, call them what you will – Echinacea purpurea, otherwise known as the purple coneflower, is a bold and beautiful perennial for sunny gardens.
The stand-out feature is the cone-shaped centre, which is a magnet for butterflies in summer and a frosty decoration in winter, when the petals drop, leaving the sculptural seed heads for the birds.
The species most often used in gardens, Echinacea purpurea, has pinkish-purple flowers that, together with the leaves and roots, have medicinal properties. This tall-growing plant (80 – 100cm) has been hybridised into sturdy, more compact garden varieties in a range of vivid colours.
Fortunately, the new cultivars are as heat and drought tolerant as the original. The thick, deeply penetrating roots store water, helping the plant to withstand periods of drought.
As garden plants, Echinacea hybrids are rewardingly free flowering and adaptable, useful in both formal and informal gardens. Plants form clumps with strong, straight flower stems that last well as cut flowers.
Echinaceas combine effortlessly with airy grasses in prairie-style plantings, can be massed as dazzling borders or mixed with other old-fashioned beauties in cottage gardens. They will thrive as container plants in deep containers that provide enough space for their roots.
In the herb garden, Echinacea purpurea is often planted with other flowering herbs like catmint (Nepeta mussinii), yarrow (Achillea), pink perennial basil and bee balm (Monarda). Their medicinal properties reside mainly in their roots, which are harvested when the plants die down in winter. A tincture made from the roots can be taken as a tonic to strengthen the immune system. The flower petals are edible, for adding to salads and desserts.
Echinaceas grow in full sun or light shade, in ordinary to poor garden soil, with added compost to improve drainage. Plants grow 30 – 90cm high and should be spaced 45 – 60cm apart. Water regularly to establish the plants and then less frequently, but deeply, in summer for healthy growth and flowers. Fertilise in spring and again in summer. Remove dead flowers and cut back the stems to encourage new flowers. Dividing the clumps is not recommended as this reduces their flowering. New plants can be propagated from root cuttings taken in autumn.
Take your pick:
Echinacea ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ is an award-winning series, having been a Fleuroselect Gold Medal winner in 2012 and an All-American Selections flower award winner in 2013. It is a first-year flowering perennial, growing up to 75cm with large flowers in a range of sunset colours: purple, red, pink, orange, yellow, white and cream. The compact, very well-branched
plants deliver lots of flowers and don’t topple over in wind or rain. These are high-impact bedding plants.
Echinacea ‘PowWow’ is a genetically shorter variety, with a garden height of 50cm and spread of 40cm. Also a first year-flowering perennial, its flower shades are ‘White’ and ‘Wild Berry’ (deep purpley-pink). This easy-care plant is very drought tolerant.
Echinacea ‘Prairie Splendour’ is the most compact of the garden varieties, with a height of 30cm and spread of 40cm. It is also suitable for growing in 20cm pots. Plants are neat with many flower stems, and are able
to withstand heat and drought. ‘Prairie Splendour’ was the break-through for first-year flowering Echinacea varieties.