Every garden needs a number of bomb-proof plants that flower over an extended period, need little attention, are attractive to bees and butterflies, are suitable for cutting and drying, and blend happily with almost anything. They are the corps de ballet surrounding the prima donnas of our borders.
One such genus that has become very popular in recent years is echinacea, otherwise known as the purple coneflower. Echinacea purpurea 'White Swan' is a particularly striking dancer in this garden ballet.
While most forms of E. purpurea have purple-mauve ray florets, 'White Swan's' are ivory-white and up to 7cm (3in) in diameter. The petals jut out in a perfect, neat, tutu-like circle when young. As they mature, the bronzy-green central cone grows more prominent and the petals curve outwards and back on themselves, gradually turning from stiff, pancake-style tutus into elegant Degas-style tutus.
The bright orange central cones consisting of many tiny bristly scales and disc florets, which elongate as the flowers age.
While E. purpurea can grow 1 to 1.5m (40 to 60in) tall, 'White Swan' only reaches about 70cm (28in) tall, with a spread of 45cm (18in). Flower stems first grow from the leaf axils in July and continue to produce flowers until October. They are lightly honey scented and very attractive to butterflies and bees.
This is a tough and problem free plant that will cope well with adverse weather conditions. The long flowering period, neutral colour and mid-border size of 'White Swan' means that it harmonises well with a number of summer perennials. It is not surprising that echinacea are the answer to many gardeners' prayers.
The National Garden Bureau (NGB) chose the Echinacea as its perennial of the year for 2014.
Sow seeds in late winter to spring or in late summer to autumn. Echinacea will flower in 11 to 15 weeks so if started indoors early enough, it is possible to get flowers in the first season.
Sow at 20 to 24°C (68 to 75°F), Fill pots or trays with a good seed starting mix (John Innes or similar). Moisten by standing the pots in water, then drain.
Surface sow the seed and press lightly into the soil. Seeds need light to germinate, so do not cover the seeds or use only a light sprinkling of vermiculite. The compost should be kept moist but not wet at all times. Germination may start after only 5 days but may take up to 20 days. Prick out each seedling as it becomes large enough to handle, transplant into 7.5cm (3in) pots or trays to grow on. Plant out in spring into well drained soil. Gradually acclimatise to outdoor conditions for 10 to 15 days before planting out.
In their natural environment, the seeds would germinate after a period of cold, so if there is little or no germination move the tray to a cold area: at around 4°C (39°F) for 2 to 4 weeks. Once you have picked out the remaining seedlings place the tray outdoors in a sheltered area for the winter. Come back to it in spring, more seedlings may await!
Echinacea are generally low maintenance. Grow in deep, well-drained, humus-rich soil ideally in full sun although they can tolerate some shade. Plant in light shade in hot climates. They are tolerant of drought, heat, humidity and poor soil. Avoid over-watering as Echinacea prefer drier conditions once established. No additional fertilising is necessary as heavy fertilisation leads to tall, leggy plants that flop.
These plants are easy to grow although, as with many perennials, they usually take more than one growing season to truly begin to flower. Cut back stems as the blooms fade to encourage further flower production.
Once they are established Echinacea will freely self seed if some deadheads are left intact.
Goldfinch fight for the seeds. If you want to harvest them cover with a net after the seed begins to form. The seed can be difficult to harvest and are easiest after rain or early in the morning when they are wet from dew. The prickly seed heads are soft and pliable, they can be broken in half with your fingers and the seeds picked out.
Dividing every few years will keep them healthy. Divided in spring or autumn, although this should not be too often and care should be taken as they resent a lot of disturbance.
While most home garden Echinacea is a garden ornamental, it can also be grown as a fresh or dried cut flower. Allow flowers to mature on the plant before harvesting. Fresh Echinacea has a short vase life of seven days. Dry by hanging upside down in a well-ventilated, dry area.
Cottage/Informal Garden, Cut Flowers and Flower Arranging, Flowers Borders and Beds, Prairie Planting, Wildflower Gardens or Wildlife Gardens.
Echinacea has nine species in the genus and all are native to the United States. They are related to Rudbeckia and have very much the same look when flowering.
Three different species are used medicinally: E. purpurea, E. pallida, and E. angustifolia. Purpurea is considered more ornamental. Each variety is used to boost the immune system and ward off infections. They have been studied and proven effective against bronchitis, coughs, cold, flu, fever, infections, and sore throat.
Historically, the leaves of these plants were used by Native Americans to treat rheumatism, mumps, and measles and the roots to treat burns and toothaches.
The root was also chewed as a cold remedy and to increase saliva flow to prevent thirst. A tea made from powdered roots and leaves was drunk to treat sore gums and sore throats. Samples of Echinacea were uncovered in campsites from the 1600s, but its use probably goes back much further.
The root is fibrous and close to the surface. It takes 3 to 4 years to develop roots large enough for a substantial harvest.
A fun exercise for the unknowing is to take 3 to 5 seeds and grind them between your front teeth. The resulting sensation will exhibit its pain killing ability.
Echinacea is a genus in the aster family. There are nine species of Echinacea. The family is native to the central and south-eastern parts of the United States.
Some species, for example E. angustifolia, E. purpurea, and E. pallida, are widespread. (These three species are most commonly found in herb products). E.purpurea prefers relatively damp sites in semi-shadow such as the edges of forests and embankments, from lowlands to elevations of 1500 metres.
While other species, including E. tennesseensis (obviously from Tennessee), the rare Appalachian species E. laevigata, and E. paradoxa, are found in narrowly restricted areas. E. tennesseensis and E. laevigata are on the list of endangered plant species.
The yellow-flowered E. paradoxa (the paradox of this "purple coneflower" is that it is yellow) and E. simulata (simulating E. pallida), are both native to the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri.
Other unusual species include E. atrorubens, which occurs in eastern Kansas and Oklahoma, and E. sanguinea, which occurs in Louisiana and eastern Texas, with one population in southwestern Arkansas.
The name Echinacea is derived from the Greek word echino which means spiky or prickly, referring to the plant’s floral centre. Pronounced eck-in-ay-see-uh
The species name 'purpurea' simply refers to the colour of the species plant.
The common name of Coneflower is shared with a number of species including Rudbeckia.
NGB. 2014 Year of the Echinacea:
Echinacea was chosen as the National Garden Bureau’s 2014 Perennial of the Year because of the vast assortment of flower colours and shapes available to today’s gardener but also because they are such a garden staple. The classic flower shape continues to be a favorite in home and public gardens, a ‘tried and true’ classic sure to please any home gardener.
- Additional Information
Family Asteraceae Genus Echinacea Species purpurea alba Cultivar White Swan Synonym Echinacea purpurea alba, Brauneria purpurea, Rudbeckia purpurea Common Name White Cone Flower or Coneflower Hardiness Hardy Perennial Natural Flower Time Mid summer to late summer Height 60 to 90cm (24 to 36in) Spread 45 to 60cm (18 to 24in) Position Ideally in full sun, will tolerate partial shade Aspect East, West or South facing. Exposed or Sheltered Soil Well-drained/light, Clay/heavy, Chalky/alkaline, Sandy Germination 5 to 20 days at 20 to 24°C (68 to 75°F)