Friday, August 3, 2012

Echinacea (Cone Flower)

Where flowers bloom, so does hope. 
~Lady Bird Johnson, First Lady and wildflower advocate, 1912-2007

This beautiful flower with droopy petals and an ever elongating seed head is also a medicinal plant used throughout history, its properties easing illness and boosting our immunity.  But don’t go eating any of these plants in your garden, not all of them are used for medicinal purposes. 

 For years I had an Echinacea plant, barely alive in a sunny spot on the sunny south side of my house.  I couldn’t figure out what was keeping it from thriving.  I moved it to a slightly less hot, sunny spot but still it just sat there and looked worse and worse.  Finally I decided to get serious so I moved it again to a different sunny spot.  I also planted about 5 more along side, creating a large patch of Echinacea.  Since then I have added more and they are all growing and thriving.  I think the first two spots were too wet of soil, one being by a downspout and the other had shrubs shading the soil too much.  Sometimes it takes a few moves to find just the right place, so don’t get frustrated if a plant seems to fail…try moving it.  This is one plant where one just isn’t enough.  A single plant seems puny but en-masse it is a sight to behold.  Begin with no less than 3 plants, planted in a triangle, 20 inches (51 cm) apart if you want to make an impact in your garden.

There are many species of Echinacea, all native to North America.  You might be most familiar with the purple varieties but in the past several years Echinacea has become a favorite among hybridizers, introducing new colors of yellows and oranges every year.  I still prefer the standard purple though I’ve seen a soft butter yellow that I’d love to bring into my garden someday.

Most common in gardens and nurseries in my region is Echinacea purpurea or Eastern purple Coneflower.  It is a robust, stocky flower and plant with deeper green leaves as seen here in my garden.

Pictured next is Echinacea pallida, a more delicate species.  It is just beautiful.  It has a much softer color and the petal is longer…flowing, a little like ribbons around the May pole.

Overall the plant structure of E. pallida is more delicate and open than the E. purpurea species as you can see the two side by side below (E. pallida is on the left).   The only negative thing I can say about E. pallida is that its stems are not as strong as E. purpurea so I’ve had to stake the plant.  I’ve not had to stake E. purpurea, though after a windstorm a stem or two does need help.  With E. pallida the overall plant leans over so one encircling or half circle support is all that is needed.   Perhaps if you plant your E. pallida amonst your E. purpureas they will provide all the support needed for the other.  I need to move one and will be trying that this year.  Normally I don’t like staking plants…who’s got time for all that fussing.  But there are some plants that are so beloved either for their look, color or fragrance that in order to keep them one must make the choice to stake.  Like many things in life you must pick your battles.  Echinacea pallida is worth it for me.

Plant your Echinacea in a full sun location.  Keep them well watered until they get established, at least for the first year, perhaps into the second.  Even with our rainy weather, keep an eye on the level of soil moisture.  That first year of establishing in a garden the plant must develop a strong root network.  Don’t keep them too wet though, as roots need the soil to dry a little so oxygen can reach into the soil pockets too.  Only after they are established will they handle the stress of drought.

The pollen and nectar are gathered by bees and butterflies in the summer.  I do not suggest you deadhead your Echinacea.  If you do you will miss the fun of seeing the song birds in the winter feasting on the seeds.  It is a plant that truly provides food for your garden wildlife practically year round.

The most commonly sold Echinacea in western U.S. nurseries is E. purpurea.  Finding E. pallida may take more work but if you like variety and rarities in your garden it is well worth the effort.

In Bloom in my Garden Today: Agastache foeniculum (anise hyssop), Alpine Strawberries, Alyssum, Astilbe, ‘Begonia ‘bonfire’, Bletilla pink, Borage, Coreopsis ‘moonbeam’, Daphne caucasica, Digitalis grandiflora, Echinacea, Fuchsia, Gaillardia (blanket flower), Geum, Geranium ‘mavis simpson’, Green Beans, Heuchera, Hosta, Kniphofia ‘echo mango, ’Lavender, Lilium tigrinum ‘splendens’, Lily, Lobelia, Mullen chaixii ‘Album’, Nepeta ‘six hills giant’ (catmint), Perovskia ‘little spire’, Phygelius ‘new sensation’ (cape fushia), Purple poppies, Rose, Salvia, Scheherazade oriental lily, Schizostylis ‘watermelon’, Sedum, Star Jasmine (trachelospermum jasminoides), Thyme ‘foxley’, Tigridia (Mexican Shell Flower), Tomato, Zucchini, Veronica,

Authors photos