CAROLE McCRAY: The year of Echinacea
February 02, 2014 1:50 AM

Popular, easy-to-grow, widely adaptable, genetically diverse, versatile and available in assorted colors and shapes. That is Echinacea, better known as the coneflower. The National Garden Bureau is celebrating 2014 as “Year of the Echinecea” and has provided the following information about the popular perennial.

Echinacea, an American staple, is native to central and eastern North America and is a member of the Asteraceae family. The name Astaeraceae finds its origin from the Greek word for star. Most Echinacea blooms are oversized bright disks atop rings of downward curving petals. The name “Echinacea” is also derived from the Greek word “echino,” which means spiky or prickly, referring to the plant’s floral center.

Pollination of cone flowers occur most often with the help of butterflies and bees.

Besides its native landscape and prairie appeal, the herbal and medicinal use of the plant has been documented throughout the years. Echinacea angustifolia was used by Native Americans to soothe sore throats, headaches or coughs, symptoms of the common cold. They first sought the benefit of using Echinacea medicinally after observing elk that sought out the plant and ate it when wounded or sick.

Its popularity as an herbal supplement has grown and consumers have also learned that the plant is a good garden flower.

Echinacea remains a “top five” perennial in terms of retail sales. Poor winter hardiness, however, is a source of frustration with some gardeners. Echinacea with bolder color hues have been grown from tissue culture liners, and this propagation can lack good winter hardiness.

However, recent breeding has developed seed-grown varieties selected specifically for their bold coloring and trialed for over wintering success to USDA Zone 4.

Echinacea is attractive to birds, bees and butterflies, making it a great choice for a pollinator-friendly garden. Flowering through early summer till the fall, its seed heads can be left to dry on the plant to feed wild birds through the winter.

It is generally deer-resistant, drought-tolerant and withstands heat and wind. For best visual impact, plant in masses, and deadhead florets to encourage further bloom. When grown from seed, Echinacea will flower in 11 to 15 weeks, so if started indoors early enough, it is possible to get flowers in the first season. With most varieties, sow seeds indoors 8 to 10 weeks before you plan to move them outdoors.

Generally low maintenance, Echinacea likes full sun or light shade in hotter climates. Avoid over-watering as Echinacea prefers drier conditions once established.

It can be grown as a fresh or dried cut flower.

Pests and diseases can affect Echinacea. Slugs, Japanese beetles, bacterial leaf spot, powdery mildew or botrytis are often found on the plants.

The following are common and popular varieties hardy to USDA Zone 4:

• “Cheyenne Spirit’” is a seed-grown hybrid Echinacea with excellent over-winter performance on drought-tolerant plants. It is an All-American Selections Winner, regarded for its brilliant segregated color range — red, orange, purple, scarlet, cream, yellow and white. It grows 18-30 inches tall and is 10 to 20 inches wide.

• “Double Scoop Orangeberry” grows 24 to 26 inches tall and spreads 16 to 22 inches wide. It has a high count of fully double, pompom flowers in bright colors.

• “Primadonna White” is a white compact plant with nice, bright white flowers, perfect for an evening garden. It also has orange-green cones that stand up erect from the petals. This variety, available from seed, grows 28 to 36 inches tall and can be used as a cut flower.

Other varieties common and popular have catchy names such as “Kim’s Knee Hi,” “Magnus,” “PowWow Wild Berry,” “Prairie Splendor,” “Sombrero Hot Coral,” “Tomato Soup,” and “White Swan.” Check on zone hardiness for these plants.

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