Perennial Plant of 2014

Published 4:23 pm Monday, March 10, 2014

One thinks of the purple coneflower when we hear the name Echinacea. They grow wild on the American prairie lands and Grandmother often included them in her garden. Herbalists grow them for their medicinal properties and native plant advocates incorporate them into their landscapes as well.  Over the last decade a rainbow of Echinacea hybrids have been developed and are now on the market. Delightful colors plus hardy attributes make them popular with home gardeners.

Designated as the Perennial Plant of 2014 by the National Garden Bureau, Echinacea is a member of the Asteraceae family, whose other members include daisy, rudbeckia, sunflower and aster. The name originated from the Greek word echino which means spiky, referring to the spiky raised centers that are generally a prominent feature of these perennials.

Native Americans long ago discovered the medicinal power of the native narrow leaf purple coneflower, Echinacea augustifolia. They saw wounded and sick elk seek them out to eat. They found that the roots could be used to soothe sore throats and relieve headaches and coughs. By the mid 19th century Echinacea was recognized by herbalist as a pain reliever, antidepressant and immune booster.

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Echinacea are easy to grow, have long sturdy tap roots which makes them drought-tolerant once established, are deer resistant and not too picky about soil unless it happens to be heavy clay or poorly drained. Average and even poor soil is OK if the winter drainage is good. Compost incorporated into the planting hole is all the fertilizer that is necessary the first year plus an annual thin layer of compost added each spring afterwards under a couple of inches of mulch. They get crowded so division is recommended every 3-4 years.

The traditional purple coneflower is still popular but the new hybrids are bright and colorful, ranging from whites to pinks, reds, yellows and light green shades. Some are quite tall reaching 4 feet that need staking while others are smaller and more compact. Most will bloom from spring into fall if deadheaded and are a big draw for butterflies and hummingbirds as well as birds in the fall if the last of the flowers are allowed to turn into seed heads in the garden.  They love full sun but will tolerate some light shade in warmer areas. The florets are hermaphroditie, meaning both male and female organs on each flower. Bees and butterflies generally do the pollinating. They can be propagated from seed  (11-15 weeks from planting until blooms appear) or vegetatively by division, basal and root cutting. Spring is an excellent time to plant them in a garden. They are one of the top five selling perennials and should be available at local garden centers or through various internet and mail-order sources.

Local Master Gardener Linda Baudo has successfully grown them from seed for the past four years. When I interviewed her in 2012, she gave me several which she had grown from seeds that summer  collected from Echinacea growing in her garden the previous year. They require very little care and the butterflies love them.

Better Homes and Gardens recently grew a test garden of various new Echinacea hybrids and rated them. Some of their top performers were: Fatal Attraction, 26 inches tall with intense pink-purple petals and orange cone; Fragrant Angel, extra large blooms with white petals, a golden cone and light fragrance; Bravado, a tall, 4 foot cultivar with non-fading rosy petals and orange cones ; Sundown with warm orange petals and a deeper orange cone;  Harvest Moon, a mid-size heavy bloomer with golden petals; Mangus , the old, reliable, time tested cultivar with purple petals and orange center that reaches 30 inches tall; Razzmatazz, a pink fluffy mophead of petals which sit atop the cone, not the traditional daisy shape one expects and requires staking; Ruby Star, the star of the test garden, large, daisy-shaped blooms of rosy purple petals with a large orange cone making it a superb cut flower; Sunrise, a heavy bloomer with creamy white petals and a pronounced golden cone; and Orange Meadow Brite, the first truly orange cultivar with very slender petals and fragrance.

The National Garden Bureau mentioned several other cultivars: All America Selection Cheyenne Spirit grown from seed,18-30 inches tall with a variety of colors included in one seed packet; Powwow Wild Berry, another All American Selection which is quite compact, growing only 16-20 tall and 12-16 inches wide with intense rose colored petals that do not fade and produces profusely;  Prairie Splendor, a 2010 America Garden Award Prize Winner (chosen by public vote), a non-stop bloomer  producing blooms 2 weeks earlier in spring than any other cultivar and non- stop until frost; and Tomato Soup, bright red petals and yellow cones which grows 18-22 inches tall and is particularly drought tolerant.

Echinacea work well with other perennials and annuals in a mixed border or hummingbird and/or butterfly garden. To get the best visual effect, plant at least 3 of the same cultivar in a grouping and repeat in another spot in your garden. You will be disappointed in the results.

Miriam Jabour, a Master Gardener and Master Flower Show judge, has been active in the Openwood Plantation Garden Club for over 35 years. Write to her at 1114 Windy Lake Drive, Vicksburg MS 39183.