Wednesday, July 14, 2021 4 comments

Are the new coneflowers just pretty faces?

 When you specialize in one particular plant, it’s easy to fall into a gardening rut.

Several years ago when we were living in Maryland, I focused on roses and companion plants that looked good with roses. I wasn’t very interested in experimenting with anything new.


Now that I’m creating a new garden in the mountains of North Carolina, I see I’ve been missing out on some really interesting perennials. I inherited a few daylilies and am just beginning to appreciate their beauty and usefulness.

I was also intrigued when a coneflower popped up in an area where I’d sown wildflower seeds one summer. It was just an old fashioned Echinacea purpurea but it looked quite elegant amid a group of oxeye daisies.

I wondered why I hadn’t noticed this appealing flower before.

The humble Echinacea  has some fancy new cousins

Hardy, attractive, and easy to grow, these popular American wildflowers have long been a staple of the perennial border both here and in Europe. Nine species are native to North America and grow mainly in the central and southeastern U.S.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, a number of enterprising plant breeders began making crosses between several varieties of native coneflowers in an attempt to make a good thing even better.

The result has been a dizzying array of new hybrids in a rainbow of delicious colors, along with a wide choice of flower forms including double blooms.  

'Milk Shake'

Keeping up with all these new and unusual coneflowers is about as difficult as figuring out which of a multitude of rose introductions to try. The number of choices and names boggles the mind. It can also be confusing since so many of the new introductions look alike.


Should I get a ‘Milkshake’ and ‘Tomato Soup’? Or a ‘Marmalade’ and 'Merlot'?

And once I decide on which of the new beauties to try, should I assume it will be as easy-care as the old standby?

The coneflower controversy

The traditional purple coneflower has been a Top 10 perennial for decades. It self-seeds so even when the original plant is just a memory, true seedlings will have taken its place.

Unfortunately, many of the new introductions don’t perform as dependably in the garden.

'Raspberry Truffle'

Many seem to disappear after a year or so, and others never bloom. Some fade quickly in the heat. Some turn black with too much rain. A number of varieties don’t set seed, and others produce strange seedlings.

It’s a disappointing result after a great deal of hype and high expectations.

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the success rate for certain new coneflowers may depend on the region where they are grown and the growing conditions.

When I first started writing about the new cultivars, I mentioned a three year study conducted by the nonprofit Mount Cuba Center in northern Delaware. As a result of the study that concluded in 2009, ‘Pica Bella’, ‘Fatal Attraction’ and ‘Fragrant Angel’ were named top performers.

Mount Cuba has just completed a second three-year study. The first trial included 48 cultivars and the second evaluated 75 entries for general vigor, abundance of bloom, length of bloom and growth habit.

An interesting aspect of the second trial is they also kept records on which pollinators were likely to visit coneflowers.

And the winner? Once again, ‘Pica Bella’ led the way and was also named a preferred pollinator plant. Other top performers included ‘Pink Sensation’, ‘Snow Cone’ ‘Fragrant Angel’, Kismet ‘Intense Orange’, Kismet ‘Raspberry’, and ‘Balsomcor’ Sombrero. The study can be seen its entirety at

The big winner 'Pica Bella'

Interesting, the trial discovered that bees and wasps made up the majority of pollinator visitors, with butterflies comprising only 5% of activity.

The trial also took a look at double-flowered coneflower varieties and concluded that they may look sensational at the garden center, but when it came to aiding pollinators, they were of little or no help.

Another interesting five year study is wrapping up at the RHS Garden Wisley, and I will pass on the results when available. A couple of things are already known: Echinaceas do not like heavy mulches, heavy soils or too much water. And double varieties may look impressive in sunny, dry weather but tend to collapse in the rain.

Kismet 'Intense Orange'

I’ve tried a few coneflowers in my North Carolina mountain garden (My 'White Swan' didn't make it) but have not yet found one that seems happy in my "rain forest". But there are so many eye catching varieties out there, I will be tempted to keep trying and perhaps just treat them as annuals.


'White Swan'

The fact that there are so many unique and enticing plants out there is exciting news for gardeners.

But before we all go coneflower crazy, we need to separate the dazzlers from the duds.