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Cornucopia - Echinacea

Echinacea
Jennie Maillard

Not many of you will have failed to notice that echinacea are now available in an increasing range of colours. If, like me, you are interested in this phenomenon you might find the following few lines of interest. It is by no means comprehensive but by way of a short explanation.

First a bit of background information: echinacea are in the family Compositae – or it could be Asteraceae now, I can’t always keep up with the botanists, daisies really. The ‘echinos’ part is Greek for hedgehog and this refers to the pointed scales at the back of the flowers, which lots of us know as coneflowers. They originate from the prairies of America and are strong-growing, drought-tolerant perennials, good for sunny spots and suitable for all but the very worst of un-worked clay soils which stay sodden in winter. There are actually several different wild species, not often found in ordinary garden centres, Echinacea angustifolia (narrow-leaved), E. atrorubens (red), E. laevigata (smooth-leaved), E. pallida (pale), E. purpurea (purple), E. simulata (waxy-leaved), E. tennesseensis (from Tennessee) and no I have not forgotten, ... E. paradoxa ... this is the interesting one, it’s yellow. If you have never seen E. paradoxa in flower you would be forgiven for thinking that it was a rudbeckia (actually they are closely related cousins).

In 1968 the taxonomy of echinacea was undertaken by the University of Kansas, which reported that different species could be crossed. But it was not until 1995 when the Chicago Botanical Gardens, who have a plant breeding programme designed to produce plants to thrive in the Midwest of the USA, decided to cross E. paradoxa with E. purpurea and came up with 'Art’s Pride'. Hailed as a breakthrough in ornamental plant breeding, we now have our first 'new colour echinacea', a warm orange. Apparently, inter-species coneflowers have proven to be very promiscuous so I do find it interesting to ponder why the bees have never managed to produce a different colour for us. Of course the success of Art has resulted in lots of growers having a go at crossing, (the public’s clamour for new plants goes on unabated) and amongst the most successful have been the Saul brothers, again in the US; their plants are usually named after what must have been quite a large family, but most have another name as well and are all known as the 'Big Sky' series. I have to warn you that the naming of many of these new crosses can be very confusing; they often have two and sometimes, help, three names! For instance, 'Art’s Pride' itself can be found being sold as 'Orange Meadowbrite'. ('Meadowbrite' is a series from Chicago Botanic Gardens and their trademark name.) Not to be outdone, those horticultural colossi, the Dutch, are now trying their hand at a bit of hybridizing. Although most of the crosses are attempts at new colours, different heights are being sought as well as more fragrance, doubles, larger cones with smaller petals and vice-versa, or even, horror of horrors, we have a double-decker, with one flower sitting on top of another; it’s not pretty.

Although l don’t think we will ever get as many echinaceas as we have hardy geraniums, be prepared for a proliferation of them in the years to come. I suspect that in this year’s RHS Plant Finder you will discover more than 60 entries and that soon the RHS will have an echinacea trial to sort out the dross but until then, of those known to me (probably 20), the following are some of the best:

  • Echinacea 'Matthew Saul', usually called 'Harvest Moon', a lovely peachy orange with an orange cone. Slightly fragrant. 76cm (30in).
  • E. purpurea 'Fatal Attraction', from Piet Oudolf, intense pink flowers but it is the black stems that hold these that make it unique and stunning. 66cm (26in).
  • E. purpurea 'Fragrant Angel', 10–12cm (4-5in) large, good white flowers with a nice fragrance. 1m (36in).
  • E. purpurea 'Jade', also white but green flushed and with a dark green cone (aka 'Green Heart'). 76cm (30in).
  • E. purpurea 'Razzmatazz', you may not like double flowers but these are a lovely pink and last a long time, and on the same lines there is also a new double white called 'Coconut Lime' that is so new that I have not seen it flower yet.
  • E. purpurea 'Ruby Giant' AGM, an old variety with lovely, large 18cm (7in) pink flowers and a good reliable plant. 1m (36in).
I have very good reports from a good gardening friend of E. purpurea 'Summer Sky' (aka 'Katie Saul'); the 12cm (5in) flowers are a pastel two-tone with the coral orange blushed rose in the centre and an orange cone. 76cm (30in).

Before I end I must warn you that in the spring the new emerging growth needs to be protected from hungry slugs and snails. I use a few slug pellets hidden under an empty grapefruit that I try to check regularly; the advantages of a grapefruit are that it hides the dead molluscs from birds, can be easily seen to remind you to check it, and eventually it just rots away.

First published in the Sussex Group Newsletter, Spring 2008
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 24
© Copyright for this article: Jennie Maillard

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2009. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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