Echinacea, a North American native perennial, has long been a medicinal herb. Plains Indian tribes used the roots and rhizomes of Echinacea angustifolia, and today many of us swear by Echinacea tea or tablets to ward off colds and strengthen immune systems.
But while the benefits of Echinacea, or purple coneflower, are near-legendary, there's another reason to grow the plant: It's gorgeous.
With big, daisy-like petals spoked around a bulbous hub of gold-tipped bronze quills, it adds a beautiful wildflower look to the perennial beds. It also blooms reliably for months (even in drought), attracts butterflies and goldfinches, and can last for two weeks in a cut arrangement. Though the plant spreads well, it's not invasive. And its many-seeded cones provide winter munchies for birds.
"Echinacea is one of the star performers that ought to be planted in everybody's garden," says horticulturist Steve Frowine, who has 30 years' experience with perennials.
Echinacea -- the name comes from 'echinos,' Greek for 'hedgehog' for its spiky centers -- has also been a favorite for state roads and highway plant-ings for years. It's virtually carefree and thrives in heat, sun, drought and drench. Despite all these merits, until recently it's been underappreciated as an ornamental.
"We didn't used to appreciate our own natives as much as [those of] the European breeders," notes Frowine.
Part of the reason may be that until recently, there was a fairly limited range of choices in echinacea's bloom color and form. In most of the native strains, the flowers look like badminton shuttlecocks, with drooping petals and a large but not show-stopping coned center. The colors sort of ran the gamut from A to B -- a monochromatic slide from the whites of E. 'White Swan' and E. 'White Lustre' through the ghostly lavender of E. pallida, to the mauvey-pink of E. purpurea. Nice but not outstanding.
But more recently, hybridizers woke up to echinacea's ornamental possibilities and set to work. The result was E. purpurea 'Magnus,' a big, starch-petaled magenta / lavender bloom with a fabulous gold and bronze cone in the center.
It was named perennial plant of the year for 1998. And this year brought 'Meadowbrite,' a total departure from the white-to-lavender-pink palette. Developed by the Chicago Botanic Garden, 'Meadowbrite' opens a glorious tangerine orange bloom with slim petals and large dark-brown cones.
Sadly, there is a limited number of 'Meadowbrite' plants available this year, so order early if that's what you're after. However, there are two other new colors that will be available next spring: 'Sunrise' is primrose yellow, and the bloom fades to buttercream, and 'Sunset' starts out mango orange and darkens to coral as the flower ages.
"And they've got extreme vigor to go with the dramatic flower color," says Chris Hanson, horticulturist for Wayside Gardens in Hodges, S.C. "The stems are like pencils in strength, the blooms are four and a half inches across -- I've got photographs with a ruler held beside one to prove it. The cones are about twice the size of normal echinacea cones. And they are fragrant."
"They smell like roses," agrees Susan Martin, marketing coordinator at Walters Gardens, a wholesale breeder and grower in Zeeland, Mich., that supplies plants to catalog houses and garden centers around the country.
But while we must wait for some of the new colors (and fragrances),there are new double-flowered forms available right now.
Rich pink 'Razz-matazz' has a fringe of single petals around the bottom of the bloom and is capped with a big pink powder puff, while 'Double Decker' has two sets of petals, one around the bottom and a second tier around the top. And the magenta blooms of 'Doppleganger' look like a Dr. Seuss character with a ballet skirt of petals below the cone and a wonderfully disheveled topknot of petals above.
Echinacea, which usually blooms from the end of June through September, is almost foolproof to grow. Plant in full sun in well-drained soil. They survive handily in poor soil, but thrive in richer loam. Depending on variety, sturdy stems reach between 2 to 4 feet tall and rarely, if ever, need staking. Divide every few years. While cones are much less prominent in the new double-flowered varieties, the older, big-coned varieties can add winter interest in the garden until the birds pluck them clean.
Wayside Gardens 1 Garden Lane Hodges, SC 29695-0001 800-845-1124 www.waysidegardens.com
White Flower Farm P.O. Box 50 Litchfield, CT 06759-0050 800-503-9624 www.whiteflowerfarm.com
Jackson & Perkins 1 Rose Lane Medford, OR 97501 800-292-4769 www.jacksonandperkins.com
Bluestone Perennials 7211 Middle Ridge Rd. Madison, OH 44057 800-852-5243 www.bluestoneperennials.com