Perennial Echinacea, or ‘cone flowers,’ eye-catching this time of year

By Steve Smith

An article in the September edition of my wife’s “The English Garden” magazine is about the glories of the perennial Echinacea, or as we Yanks call them, “cone flowers.”

That got me thinking about this wonderful late summer bloomer…

It’s been a while since I researched Echinaceas, but there are many new selections on the market and several that have gone by the wayside. A quick walk around our perennials tables revealed over 24 cultivars, probably way more than any of us need, but then it is always fun to have choices.

In the early days of Echinacea breeding, there were many new introductions that proved to be less than reliable for Northwest gardeners. Cone flowers are native to the American prairie, mostly where there is a distinct summer and a cold winter with snow. Winters here are usually wet, which can cause a plant to wake up prematurely or never really go dormant. All Echinaceas love sun and good drainage. The yellows and oranges need the best drainage, while the pinks and purples are less fussy. None like to be crowded, and they all need to be deadheaded right up to the last blooms of summer, at which time you can let some flowers set seed for the birdies.

Traditionally cone flowers only came in purple or white, but with the hybridizing of a yellow variety, breeders started giving us reds, oranges, clear yellows, an assortment of tropical colors and some goofy-looking double varieties.

Here are three that caught my eye this week:

•Mama Mia — Mama has very large red-orange flowers that change from red to orange to coral and then to pink as they mature. The plant grows 2 feet tall and will form a clump 30 inches across in a few short seasons.

•Prima Ginger — This one really knocked my socks off. Prima has multicolored blooms that start a soft orange and then age to a pink tone. It is short and stocky, growing only to 15-inches tall, which makes it a great candidate for a container. There is also a “Prima Cinnamon” and a “Prima Ruby” in this series.

•Sombrero Flamenco Orange — The Sombrero series came out several years ago and all the colors are sturdy and compact, but still reach 24- to 30-inches tall once established. Flamenco has big, bright orange-red petals surrounding the typical brown spiky center cone that all cone flowers are known for. This is a long bloomer and will form a good-sized clump, but it’s also well-suited for containers in the first season before it gets too big.

All cone flowers mix well with ornamental grasses, sedums, lavender, black-eyed Susan daisies and really, just about any summer blooming perennial that likes a hot, dry, location. Try some in your border this summer.

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached at info@sunnysidenursery.net.

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