From the ground up: Go crazy for coneflowers

When the heat of midsummer hits, and rain becomes more sparse — my favorite flower must be the native echinacea, commonly known as the purple coneflower. This tried-and-true Iowa native is loved by butterflies, caterpillars and birds, and will withstand almost any type of weather. Beyond its benefit to wildlife, it is known to have medicinal properties for humans. Generally, it is most commonly used in salves, tinctures, and teas to boost the immune system and fight infection.

The good news for gardeners is that echinacea not only is useful, it’s also a beautiful addition to your perennial beds and borders, and is hardy even in very cold climates (zone 4). The only thing echinacea can be somewhat fussy about is too much moisture. It likes a fairly dry soil and should never have to sit very long with its roots in wet, soggy soil.

There are nine species of echinacea, but the flowers we are most familiar with come from the species E. purpurea (purple coneflower) and its white cousin, “swan.” Given rich, amended soil, plants reach a height of 3 to 4 feet and produce flowers 4 to 6 inches across. In most varieties, the petals droop after growing outward from the cone, accounting for the name given to the plants in the Ozarks: droops. Their long, strong stems make them ideal candidates for the cutting garden.

Coneflowers enjoy a sunny location with fertile soil. If your soil isn’t particularly fertile, work in a little compost. Well-drained soil is a must. In moist areas, you might need to plant in a raised bed.

New plants and seedlings will need to be watered through the first year. Once they are growing well, they are drought-tolerant, and require very little maintenance.

The coneflower has long been known for its wide variety of purple/lavender tints, but in recent years, hybrids have produced colors in the red/yellow/orange range, which are stunning. A few examples to look for are “Tomato Soup,” a bright red with sass; the orange “Tiki Torch”; and the yellow/orange flowers of “Mac and Cheese.”

Two All America Selections winners are a bright, bold, deep pink called “Pow Wow Wild Berry,” and a hybrid with blooms from light yellow through deep orange called Cheyenne Spirit, and both are AAS plants and can be seen at the AAS Butterfly Garden at Noelridge Park.

The best time to plant these beauties will be in the fall when the weather cools, or in mid-spring.

As you begin to plan your gardens for next year, you can enjoy adding some of these colorful garden performers to them.

Becki Lynch is a Linn County Master Gardener.

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