Cone flowers continue to thrill in the summer garden

The perennial also known as echinacea used to come only in purple or white; now, a rainbow of colors are available.

I know I mentioned last week that I always hesitate to spend too much ink on just one variety of plant, so it was my intention to discuss some summer chores for us to complete this month. However, I then became distracted by an article in the September edition of The English Garden magazine about the glories of the perennial echinacea, or as we Yanks prefer to call them, cone flowers. That got me to thinking about this wonderful late summer bloomer.

It had been a while since I did any research on echinaceas, and there are many new selections on the market now, and several that have gone by the wayside. A quick walk around our perennials tables revealed that we are have more than 24 cultivars available to buy. That’s probably way more than any of us need to be exposed to, but then again, it is always fun to have choices.

In the early days of echinacea breeding, there were many new introductions that proved to be less than reliable for Northwest gardeners. Cone flowers are native to the American prairie, mostly where there is a distinct summer and a cold winter with snow cover. Northwest winters are usually wet with no snow cover, and often an on-again-off-again affair, which can cause a plant to wake up prematurely or never really go dormant.

As a whole, all echinaceas love sun and good drainage. The yellows and oranges need the best drainage, while the pinks and purples are less fussy. None of them like to be crowded, and they all need to be deadheaded right up to the last blooms of summer, at which time you can let some flowers set seed for the birds.

Traditionally, cone flowers only came in purple or white, but with the hybridizing of a yellow variety, breeders started giving us reds, oranges, clear yellows, and a whole assortment of tropical colors — not to mention some pretty goofy-looking double varieties.

Here are three that caught my eye this week

“Mama Mia”: This has large red-orange flowers that change from red to orange to coral and then to pink as they mature. The plant grows two feet tall and will form a clump 30 inches across in a few short seasons.

“Prima Ginger”: This one really knocked my socks off. Like “Mama Mia,” “Prima” has multicolored blooms that start a soft orange and then age to a pink tone. It is short and stocky, growing only to 12 to 15 inches tall, which makes it a great candidate for a container. As a side note, there is also a “Prima Cinnamon” and a “Prima Ruby” in this series, but thankfully I haven’t seen them on the benches to tempt me!

Sombrero “Flamenco Orange”: The Sombrero series came out several years ago and all the colors in this group are sturdy and compact (but still reach 24 to 30 inches tall once established). “Flamenco” has big, bright orange-red petals surrounding the typical brown spiky center cone that all cone flowers are known for. This is a long bloomer and will form a good sized clump, but it’s also well suited for containers in the first season before it gets too big.

All cone flowers mix well with ornamental grasses, sedums, lavender, black-eyed Susan daisies and really, just about any summer blooming perennial that likes a hot, dry, location. Try some in your border this summer.

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached at

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