In the Garden: Contemplating Coneflowers

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Echinacea. Photo Charles Kidder.

It’s coneflower season. I find myself staring down at their chest-high flowers, all in various stages of opening, with bees as well as the occasional moth going about their business.  From a distance you might assume the center of the coneflower consists of concentric circles. Look more closely, and you’ll see instead a complex of interwoven spirals.  The patterns leave me mesmerized, and if I move my head slowly from side to side, the effect can become almost dizzying. So, what’s with these spirals? 

Emerging from this coneflower reverie, I have a vague recollection of a mathematical series of numbers known as the Fibonacci Sequence. If you do some research on this, you’ll learn about Fibonacci patterns, typically illustrated with images of flowers, pinecones or nautilus shells. And among those flower images, coneflowers figure prominently, perhaps owing to the disk’s deep orange color, emphasizing the spiral arrangement of the tiny flowers in the center.

I’ve only recently become aware of these spiral patterns, but coneflowers have long been one of my favorite plants. Now might be a good time to revisit a column from several years past.

The genus Echinacea, the purple coneflowers, get their name from the Latin echinus, probably borrowed from the Greek, meaning either hedgehog or sea urchin, depending on your particular interpretation. One look at the flower’s central cone shows the resemblance to both these spiky creatures. Despite the cone’s rigidity, it’s not sharp enough to break skin.  You can welcome these American natives into your garden without fear.

Purple coneflowers belong to the family Asteraceae, which was called the Compositae back in the good old days.  The “flower” on most composites is actually composed of many flowers arranged in an inflorescence. On a coneflower between 8 and 21 ray flowers with showy petals surround the 200-300 petal-less disk flowers. Botanical correctness aside, I’ll just call this entire structure that looks like a flower—a flower.

Not surprisingly, most of the wild purple coneflowers are indeed purple, or at least a pinky-purple. (The major exception is Echinacea paradoxa, known as Ozark Coneflower or Yellow Coneflower.) Echinacea purpurea is probably the species best known to Eastern gardeners, although it is not a common wild plant in this part of the country, being more abundant once you cross the Appalachians.  Even the wild straight species of this coneflower looks great in a garden setting. The typical pink-purple rays surround bright orange cones atop stems 3-5ft tall. If you watch the flowers open over the course of a few days, you’ll notice that initially the ray petals are held in a nearly horizontal plane and the central disk is quite flat. Then as the flower develops, the rays start to droop, the disk takes on its conical shape, and the whole flower assumes that badminton birdie look.

I’ve heard some people object to the droopy phase of the flowers, and plant breeders have attempted to address this. Also, at least one person told me she could not abide pink combined with orange. Hey, those are the corporate colors of Dunkin Donuts, formerly one of my favorite fat forms! In the last few years, breeders have brought a whole slew of new colors to the coneflowers, so let’s see what’s out there.

Much of the breeding involves crossing the yellow and purple coneflowers, or even bringing the white form of the coneflower into the mix. The Saul family of Georgia has produced many cultivars; their ‘Katie Saul’ features flowers that are peach-toned toward the tips, grading toward cherry red near the cone. If you favor a bright orange flower, look for Echinacea ‘Evan Saul’ at the garden center. E. ‘Sunrise’ is good for those with more subtle tastes, with buttery-yellow flowers; it’s proven to be a very sturdy plant and a good rebloomer.

E. ‘Mango Meadowbrite’ is another subtle color, not as intense as actual mango flesh. If you favor white coneflowers, there are a few varieties available, including the new ‘Virgin’, the frilly petals surrounding a fragrant dark green cone. And for those looking for another way to avoid the “pink-with-orange problem,” there is ‘Pink Double Delight,’ with pink petals around a pink center.

As with so many plants, someone is always trying to make a shorter Echinacea. One is ‘Pixie Meadowbrite’ from the Chicago Botanic Garden, the result of a three-way cross of E. purpurea, tennesseensis and angustifolia topping out at 18 inches. This little coneflower also holds its petals in a more horizontal position, a bonus for those averse to the typical drooping.

Aside from their neat looks, coneflowers are also very undemanding to grow. They’re not fussy as to soil and actually prefer that it not be too rich; hold off on any amendments and fertilizers. Once established, they are drought tolerant and also rank pretty low on the menu as deer food. Perhaps the major issue with maintaining coneflowers is the abundance of offspring. At least on the straight Echinacea purpurea, you’ll have many seedlings, although they won’t flower until their second year. (The fancy hybrids will not usually produce viable seed.) The obvious solution: pull them up and try to find them new homes, although at some point you may run out of willing recipients.

Alternatively, you can deadhead your flowers and avoid the problem in the first place. The downside to this: you’ll be depriving goldfinches of a major food source in the late summer and fall.  You could compromise by removing most of the spent flowers, still leaving a few for the birds. With no seeds at all, I’d really miss the cheerful chortle of those little yellow guys as they swoop and dip through my garden.

I hope you’ll appreciate coneflowers as much as I do, whether they remind you of hedgehogs, sea urchins, Fibonacci’s Sequence—or Dunkin Donuts! 

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