March 17, 2021

All About Echinacea

Herbs

100

This article, from the March issue of GardenMaking online news, has valuable information about coneflower, known by its scientific name, Echinacea, a common healing herb recognized for its immune boosting powers.  It comes in a range of varieties and is easy to grow.

Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) and their cultivars are exceedingly popular perennials. They’re easy to grow, relatively hardy, pest-free, drought-tolerant and provide a source of nectar and pollen for insects. (More on this last point later.) What’s not to like?

Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) caught the attention of plant breeders in the 90s, and they began increasing their colour range and flower form at a rapid rate, enabling them to bring many new choices to market quickly. As a result, the perennial’s colour range has been expanded beyond the dusky purple of the native species to white, yellow, lime green, pink, peach, orange and red. Flower forms have changed, too, as breeders worked to create heavily doubled blooms that look like giant pom-poms.

These new cultivars may include genes from other echinacea species, such as E. paradoxa, found in the southern U.S. Therefore, what may have been gained in colour range may be at the expense of hardiness. Also, some new introductions may be sterile, meaning they’re of little use to pollinators. Or, the blooms are so densely doubled that pollinators wouldn’t even be able to find their way to pollen, should there be any.

So, when it comes to shopping for a new echinacea, decide what’s a priority for you. Native species, or cultivars closely related to these species, will be more beneficial for pollinators and may be longer-lived and hardier than the fancier cultivars. However, if you want the latest and greatest to round out your landscape design, the newest echinaceas will delight you with their rich colours and intriguing flower shapes.

Mt. Cuba Center, a non-profit botanical garden in Delaware, has recently released the results of its two-year trial that evaluated echinacea cultivars and species on their ability to attract pollinators. (The cultivars they chose for the trial are classified as hardy to the mid-Atlantic region, which corresponds — very roughly — to Zones 6 and 7 in Canada.) This is the centre’s second study of the genus. Interestingly, ‘Pica Bella’ and white ‘Fragrant Angel’, cultivars of E. purpurea, were as appealing to pollinators as the straight species.

If you’re an echinacea enthusiast, you’ll find the 24-page report highly educational. It examines 75 cultivars and species from both horticultural and ecological perspectives. You’ll learn why some of the newer cultivars aren’t as long-lived as the species, describes what can be done about aster yellows and explains the pros and cons of volunteer seedlings. Gorgeous photos, too.

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