The common purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) has always been a winner. This prairie plant, native to central and eastern North America, thrives with little water, lean soil, and full sun. Fragrant purple-pink blooms serve as butterfly magnets in the garden, and they last for days as cut flowers. Dried seed heads attract feasting goldfinches and other birds during the fall and winter.
Still, there was room for change, and in recent years, this stalwart performer has received a makeover. In 2004, scientists at the Chicago Botanic Garden rocked the garden world with the first orange coneflower, Orange Meadowbrite (also known as ‘Art’s Pride’)—and since then, breeders have gone crazy with color. Many of the new hybrids result from crossing purple coneflower with other Echinacea species. Today, you can find vivid reds, luscious oranges, soothing whites, dazzling pinks, striking yellows, and even sophisticated chartreuse greens in a wide range of sizes. It’s hard to remember when we just called it a purple coneflower!
What’s ahead for the humble coneflower? Look for more prolific bloomers in strong colors and new pastels. Expect to find compact varieties that you can grow in containers. Native coneflower species often grow with reflexed petals, meaning they droop downward, but many newer varieties have strong, daisylike petals spreading outward in horizontal rays.
Best of all, you’ll find plants that grow more shoots from their bases and from each stem. These will form more flowers that will bloom over an even longer period. There’s already a cultivar called Crazy Pink (also known as‘Adam Saul’) that boasts more than 100 blooms after a year in the landscape.
Where and how to plant
To bloom best, coneflowers need six to eight hours of sun, but they will tolerate some shade. Due to their long taproots (again, thanks to their prairie origins), coneflowers need little water once established.
You don’t need to fertilize; they thrive on lean, well-drained soil. Avoid planting in heavy, wet, clay soils, as the roots can easily rot in those conditions.
How they grow
Most coneflowers grow 2 to 4 feet tall. If you want a shorter plant, cut the stems back to about half the height in early summer. Deadhead spent blooms to promote another flush.
Bloom sizes vary from about 3 to 5 inches. Some double varieties feature tight clusters of petals near the center. Others have petals that grow in a charming rolled quill shape. There’s even a double-decker coneflower called ‘Doppelganger’ with two sets of petals—one on top of the cone and one at the cone’s base.
In the fall, let the last blooms go to seed to attract feasting goldfinches and other birds. Seeds left to fall and grow in the garden the following year may come back in a different color than their parents.
Be aware that heat can affect the color of the newer hybrids. Coolertemperatures mean richer, darker colors.
What can go wrong
If your coneflowers are turning brown or look wilted, you may be overwatering. They thrive in hot, dry conditions.
Coneflowers can succumb to aster yellows. This disease is caused by phytoplasma, a plant-killing microorganism transmitted by asterleafhoppers. Aster yellows can create bizarre symptoms in coneflowers,causing stems to twist and deform. Often, the flower heads appear to be growing tufts of tiny, deformed leaves or an extra bump in the cone. If you see these deformities, remove the entire plant from your garden—there’s no cure for aster yellows.
To prevent leaf spot, powdery mildew, and fungus, give your plants plenty of space. Avoid overhead watering, which encourages these problems.
How to combine
Coneflowers play well with other sun-loving perennials. For a hot all-coneflower combo, blend yellow, orange, and red cultivars, such as ‘Mac and Cheese’, ‘Hot Papaya’, and ‘Tomato Soup’. (Try to curb your food cravings—you’ll also find ‘Marmalade’, ‘Milkshake’, ‘Meringue’, ‘Raspberry Tart’, and ‘Gum Drop’, not to mention ‘Merlot’ and ‘Vintage Wine’!)
Combine different shades of pink in varying shapes and sizes, such as the dark-stemmed ‘Fatal Attraction’ with a double such as ‘Pink Double Delight’ and the green-tipped ‘Green Envy’.
For long-lasting combinations, plant coneflowers with easy-care roses. Ornamental grasses also make a stalwart backdrop. Consider pairing a taller pink coneflower such as ‘Ruby Giant’ with a pink-hued grass such as ‘Karley Rose’ fountain grass (Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’) or ‘Prairie Fire’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Prairie Fire’).
Coneflowers are natural allies of black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) and coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.), since they bloom at the same time.
All colors of coneflowers partner beautifully with long-blooming blue and purple perennials such as Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia; try a dwarf variety such as ‘Little Spire’), ‘Rozanne’ hardy geranium (Geranium ‘Rozanne’), or ‘Blue Fortune’ agastache (Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’).
Color Guide to Coneflowers
To get a look at 8 Native Coneflowers Click here!
Deb Wiley is a garden writer in Des Moines, Iowa.