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What You Need to Know About Growing Echinacea Plants

I have noticed a lot of gardeners of late who come into the nursery to admire the many new Echinacea hybrids — also known as coneflowers — but they're hesitant to purchase because they have had trouble overwintering them. Truth be told, the newer hybrids are much more durable and even those older cultivars can flourish if they are given the right growing conditions. So, here’s everything you need to know about choosing and caring for coneflowers.

Digitalis 'Firebird' Echinacea 'MooodzMeditation'

How to Choose and Care for Echinacea Plants

Cultural Needs of Echinacea

Echinacea 'Sunseekers Magenta'
Echinacea 'Sunseekers Magenta'

In my opinion, Echinacea requires at least six to eight hours of full sun exposure in the middle of summer in order to thrive. Too much shade results in powdery mildew problems and floppy stems. Winter drainage is absolutely critical for this genus, so if you have heavy or wet soils, you are going to have to create raised beds to accommodate them. First-year plants will need all buds and blooms removed by late August in order for them to develop a strong root system. Echinacea also prefers a slightly acidic to neutral pH of 6.5 to 7 and should be divided about every four years.

How to Fertilize Echinacea

Echinacea 'Artisan Yellow Ombre'

Always add some compost or sea soil to new plantings, after which you can top-dress established plants with compost in spring, usually early April here in coastal B.C. Try to avoid high nitrogen fertilizers as this will only result in a lot of foliage with few flowers, leaves that are susceptible to fungus, and weak flowering stems.

How to Water Echinacea

Although Echinacea is often considered a drought-tolerant perennial, new plantings will require daily watering through their first summer. Established first-year plants will thrive on just one inch of water per week under normal weather conditions, while older specimens may only require additional irrigation during periods of drought.

Echinacea Species

While these aren’t readily available, it is probably a good idea to familiarize yourself with the breeding background of modern hybrids.

Monarch Butterfly On Echinacea-Jim Hudgins Wikipedia

Echinacea purpurea or Purple Coneflower (Zone 3) is the most common species with large purplish-mauve daisies that are produced from June to August and are relatively easy to grow. 📸: Jim Hudgins - Wikipedia

Echinacea Paradoxa - Derek Ramsey Wikipedia

Yellow Coneflower (E. paradoxa) is native to the Ozark Mountains and features drooping flower heads. Yellow coneflowers are difficult to transplant due to their taproots. 📸: Derek Ramsey - Wikipedia

Echinacea Pallida - Eric Hunt Wikipedia

Echinacea pallida has thread-like flower petals of the palest purple and generally blooms from June to July. E. simulata is virtually identical except for the colour of the pollen. 📸: Eric Hunt - Wikipedia

Narrow-Leaf Coneflower (E. angustifolia) very much resembles E. purpurea but with much thinner foliage, while E. tennesseensis is rare in the wild and bears upturned rose-purple flowers.

Echinacea Flower Forms & Colour

(📸 Echinacea 'Sunseeker Salmon' & 'Green Twister': Ball Horticulture)

Given the diversity of the species used to breed modern hybrids, it should come as no surprise that that has resulted in diverse flower forms and colours. The bloom types include single (‘Tomato Soup’), double pom-pom (‘Double Scoop Cranberry’), semi-double (‘Sunseekers Salmon’), two-tiered (‘Doubledecker’), double (‘Sunny Days Lemon’) and quilled (‘Delicious Candy’). Echinacea comes in almost any colour except blue, with the occasional green (‘Green Twister’) also being available. Established plants should be deadheaded weekly to prolong the flower display.

Growing Echinacea from Seed

(📸 Echinacea 'Cheyenne Spirit': Ball Horticulture)

There are some excellent seed strains on the market including ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ (mixed colours), ‘PowWow Wild Berry’ (deep rose-pink), and ‘Sombrero Salsa Red’. Direct sow outdoors either in early spring or fall, or sow indoors 8-10 weeks before spring planting for first-season blooms.

Older Varieties of Echinacea

(📸 Echinacea 'White Swan': Ball Horticulture)

Some of the older hybrids are still around because they continue to perform quite well, and I highly recommend them. These include ‘Ruby Star’ (syn. ‘Rubinstern’), ‘White Swan’, and ‘Magnus’, all of which are readily available in economical 9cm pots that can help to stretch your garden design budget.

Wildlife Benefits of Echinacea

Goldfinch Eating Echinacea Seeds - Cephas Wikipedia

📸: Cephas - Wikipedia

This might be the best reason to plant Echinacea in your garden as they will quickly draw in bees and butterflies when in bloom, and seedheads left to ripen on mature plants will provide winter forage for many birds, including finches, juncos, and chickadees.

Choosing the Right Echinacea Plant

While flower colour and form are important, before you buy that Echinacea growing in a container, look down at the base of the stem and make sure that there is strong leaf growth at the soil level. This will ensure robust foliage and root growth, two essentials for successfully overwintering these lovely perennials.

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