Photo by Erica Grivas: In the aster family, echinacea are native to the American prairie and thrive in relatively dry conditions and can withstand even poor soil. Echinacea plants dislike being wet over the winter, so they need optimal drainage and sun for success here in the Pacific Northwest.
Photo by Erica Grivas: In the aster family, echinacea are native to the American prairie and thrive in relatively dry conditions and can withstand even poor soil. Echinacea plants dislike being wet over the winter, so they need optimal drainage and sun for success here in the Pacific Northwest.

With their showy, long-lasting summer blooms that feed bees, birds and butterflies, coneflowers are easy to love, but it can be a short relationship, since it seems difficult to get them to stick around.

Years ago, gardeners knew echinacea in its classic muted pink or perhaps white, but busy hybridizers have added an array of warm oranges, reds and yellows, as well as double-flowered ruffled versions to dazzle us. Have you fallen for and planted one of the amazing new hybrids in August, never to see it again the next spring? It’s a too-common story, but it doesn’t have to be.

I have yet to see a coneflower I didn’t love — even wacky “Cheyenne Spirit,” which mixes all the colors in a group like a fruit bowl. I adore the look of the ruffles in the double varieties, but as with my dahlias, I am focusing on the single flowers to better serve the pollinators; they can get lost in fluffy blossoms.

I enjoy them in all their phases of growth — from the petals emerging from the spiky cone to the magnificent flowers, to winter when the remaining cone offers seeds to hungry goldfinches and then, blackened, punctuating the bare winter landscape ready to catch any snow that comes our way.

Those pokey cones give the genus its name: Echinos is Greek for hedgehog and sea urchin, depending on who you ask. In the aster family, echinacea are native to the American prairie and thrive in relatively dry conditions and can withstand even poor soil. As with all Asteraceae, what we call flowers, scientists call inflorescences made up of 200 to 300 disk florets masses on the cone. There are many species, many of which are used in newer hybrids, but echinacea purpurea is the one seen most in gardens. I do lust after echinacea pallida, with her languid white petals and airy grace.

Echinacea are unfussy plants, needing little beyond some compost in the spring. They tend to be deer-resistant and are not troubled by many pests or diseases. Many think they help repel disease, in fact. An herbal remedy for immune support making up to 9 percent of the herb market worldwide, echinacea was used by Great Plains tribes for hundreds of years for multiple afflictions. All parts of the plant can be used, but the roots of E. purpurea or E. angustifolia are the most chosen. Echinacea plants dislike being wet over the winter, so they need optimal drainage and sun for success here in the Pacific Northwest.

I have planted at least 10 varieties of echinacea around the sunny parts of our yard, and only one has returned for multiple seasons. “SOMBRERO® Hot Coral” has been the summer star of my sun-blasted, barely amended glacial till-filled parking strip for about four years, and, after some research, I count myself lucky.

Turns out, echinacea are notoriously short-lived perennials in general, particularly if they get too much water in winter.

The species or the simpler seed-grown hybrids will self-seed and maintain their garden presence, although it may not be where you put them. Some hybrids propagated through tissue culture may decline after a few years if not divided.

In 2020, Mount Cuba Center in Delaware completed a trial of 75 varieties, hybrids and species looking at vigor, flowering length and pollinator activity. The top overall scorers were E. purpurea “Pica Bella,” E. “Sensation Pink,” E. “Santa Fe”/a.k.a “Lakota Fire,” E. “KISMET® Raspberry,” E. “Snow Cone,” E. “Postman,” E. “Glowing Dream,” E. “Purple Emperor,” E. purpurea “Fragrant Angel,” E. “KISMET® Intense Orange,” “SOMBRERO® Hot Coral” and E. “Julia.” Honorable mentions included “SOMBRERO® Blanco,” “PowWow White,” E. purpurea “Ruby Star” and “SOMBRERO® Flamenco.”

Beyond vindicating my love for “Hot Coral,” there was a lot to learn in this report about choosing the right echinacea.

After winning a previous Mount Cuba trial in 2010, “Pica Bella” and E. purpurea “Fragrant Angel” are notable for winning again 10 years later despite massive competition from new breeding. “Fragrant Angel,” with the honey scent some coneflowers sport, was the No. 1-visited echinacea by pollinators followed by its parent, Echinacea purpurea. “Sensation Pink” also was on the top of the overall and pollinator lists.

The trial did not address longevity because a disease called aster yellows swept through and took out several varieties, likely because so many aster family plants are trialed in that area.

The report theorized that seed-grown cultivars would be more long-lived than tissue-cultured ones. Some popular echinacea types you can grow from seed include: the species E. purpurea and its horizontal-petaled relative “Magnus,” E. “White Swan,” the PowWow series and even the unusual “Green Twister,” with green flowers edged in pink.

Breeder Dan Heims of Oregon’s Terra Nova nurseries, which bred many of the trial winners listed, wrote an article on getting echinacea to persist here in which he recommended a.) planting early in the season because coneflowers planted in fall may not have time to establish a good root system before the winter wet hits them; b.) choosing plants with a strong crown or growth at the base to give them the best preparation for overwintering. Planting before August is best.

Some other cultural tips I’ve found trawling breeder and nursery websites include: to select a sunny site with excellent drainage and mulch with pebbles in winter to repel excess water. Avoid burying the crown while planting or covering the stem with mulch. In pots, being rootbound is better than being a small plant in a big pot.

Lastly, resist cutting back stems in fall and winter until new growth emerges in spring. The goldfinches will thank you.