Cone flowers have come a long way, baby

It wasn’t too many years ago that breeders made a major breakthrough with an old tried and true perennial known as the cone flower. These tough perennials are native to North America and are completely hardy in the northwest, provided they have good drainage, which admittedly can sometimes be a problem in our soggy climate. Cone flowers are so popular that one variety was named the 1998 Perennial of the Year.

Traditionally, cone flowers were only purple and single with large ray petals shooting out from a dark spiky central cone, which produces seeds that song birds love. The species purpurea was the standard bearer with selections such as Magnus and Ruby Star offered as improved models. When White Swan was introduced, gardeners had two color choices.

There is however a yellow coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa) with fragrant narrow yellow petals that droop down from the center. When breeders started crossing these two species crazy things — translate that to mean wonderful if you are a wild and gregarious gardener or disgusting and perverse if you are a purist — happened.

Orange Meadowbrite’ and ‘Mango Meadowbrite’ were two early introductions that gave gardeners a whole new color range to work with. Then came the Big Sky series including the apricot ‘Harvest Moon,’ the yellow ‘Sunrise,’ the orange turning purple ‘Sunset,’ the reddish-purple ‘Twilight,’ and the compact orange ‘Sundown’. Echinacea “Tiki Torch” is one of over 50 being introduced by Terra Nova Nurseries. Go to their website for photos of these hot new selections.

One of the problems with these early releases was that they tended to be tall and lanky without much stem strength. Plus they were prone to root rot and often did not overwinter well in our climate. Those problems seem to have been addressed with newer introductions that are dwarf and more freely branching, which results in a stocky plant staying under two feet tall with a stronger root system. There are more flowers on these bushier models, albeit they seem to be slightly smaller. Look for the Sombrero series for some very nice color choices in both single and double forms.

Growing cone flowers is easy to do. They prefer it hot and dry but are quite happy in our mild maritime climate. Plant them in average, well drained soil in full sun. Enrich the soil with some compost and organic fertilizer at planting but keep them lean and mean the rest of the year. Leave the seed heads standing in the fall for winter interest and to feed birds.

Landscape Uses: Plant coneflowers with tall garden Phlox, Liatris, yarrows, black eyed Susan, daylilies, daisies, or ornamental grasses. The new hot tropical colors look really good with blues and purples like lavender and Russian sage and salvias such as Black and Blue. Or you can pair them up with other hot colors like Crocosmia Lucifer. Any way you use them they will be sure to please.

Whether you like the look of the traditional daisy-like flower or the goofy Koosh Ball appearance of the double forms, there is a cone flower out there in almost every color and shape imaginable. Surely there is one with your name on it just waiting to be taken home and adopted into your garden. What are you waiting for?

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached at info@sunnysidenursery.net

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