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Wednesday, February 8, 2023
Growing Together: Echinacea is a perennial favourite
Echinacea "green envy." Joanne Young
Cheyenne spirit coneflower. Joanne Young
Joanne Young
Echinacea "knee high" Joanne Young
Echinacea "marmalade." Joanne Young
Echinacea "sunrise." Joanne Young
Green jewel and adobe orange coneflower. Joanne Young

Coneflowers have been a longtime favourite flower in gardens of all types. The large flowers bloom abundantly throughout the summer and can thrive for years with little care.

The botanical name echinacea comes from the Greek word “echinos,” meaning “hedgehog” and refers to the prickly scales at the base of the flowers.

Echinacea has always been considered a miracle plant, able to cure just about anything. Indigenous people used Echinacea to treat snakebites, burns, toothaches, colds, sore throats, headaches, mumps and tonsillitis, among others.

Modern medicine could no longer ignore these claims and now echinacea tablets are available in all pharmacies and have been found to enhance the immune system and reduce the incidence of flu and colds. 

It is mainly made from the root of Echinacea angustifolia. The root is prepared carefully under strict conditions, so do not attempt to eat the root of the plant straight from the garden.

The coneflower has to be one of the most popular and well-known native genus used throughout the world.  There are many species of echinacea that are native here, the main three being Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea pallida and Echinacea angustifolia.  

These “straight species” can be found in the marketplace, but most plants sold are “cultivars” of Echinacea purpurea. “Straight species” native plants means they have grown in a particular area or ecoregion for hundreds or even thousands of years, are open-pollinated and grow true to seed.  

“Cultivars” are the result of selective breeding by humans. We often refer to cultivars of native species as “nativars.” So how can you tell if what you are buying is the straight species or a cultivar? 

When shopping for plants, the name tags will usually include the botanical name. With botanical names it always reads the same – genus species “Cultivar.” For example, the straight species of Purple Coneflower will be Echinacea purpurea. If it is a cultivar, it will be followed by a third name in quotations such as Echinacea purpurea “Magnus.”

There is a real need for people to be planting native species for attracting pollinators. Even introducing a few native species into your garden can make a difference and if everyone did this, it could have a large impact. 

There is one camp of people that says that you should plant true straight species only. The other camp says some nativars do the same job as the straight species do. 

So, whether you are a truist with your plant selections or whether nativars are acceptable, you can still be doing your part. 

With coneflowers, the cultivars that resemble the straight species the closest will still attract bees and butterflies and other pollinators, providing them with nectar, and produce seed heads that will also be a food source for songbirds.

The best cultivars are single-flowering varieties. We know that hybrid echinaceas with double and triple blooms are useless to pollinators because the extra petals block nectar and pollen. However, preliminary studies on the subject suggest some single-flowered cultivars are as attractive to pollinators as their parent plants.

Not only are coneflowers native and attract pollinators, but there are other reasons to grow them. There are many cultivars available, with new varieties coming out every year.  They are now available in many colours in shades of purples, pinks, white, yellows, oranges through to reds.    

The striking, large, showy flowers provide a splash of colour in any garden and are long-blooming – starting in late June or early July and continuing throughout the summer.

They also come in all different heights from dwarf to three to four feet tall. Coneflowers love a sunny spot with a minimum of four hours of sun or more. Because of their deep root systems, they are drought-tolerant once established. 

They do not tolerate a wet soil and there are very few disease or insect problems with coneflowers. Deadheading the first flowers of the season when finished, will encourage more blooms to form.  

It is an easy-care plant that will provide you with lots of summer colour while attracting pollinators and birds. Definitely one to be adding to your garden. Check out all the varieties of echinacea at your local garden centre.

Joanne Young is a Niagara-on-the-Lake garden expert and coach. See her website at joanneyoung.ca.


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