Echinaceas – A must-have in every garden

Mary Ann Ryan
Consumer Horticulture, Penn State Extension

(8/1) I have many "favorite" plants – in every category - ranging from perennials to shrubs to trees. It’s all dependent on where I’m visiting, what I’m teaching, or what season it is. Right now Echinaceas are a favorite of mine. Why? They are in full bloom now and there are so many colors to choose!

Echinaceas are in the family Asteraceae, often referred to as the aster or composite family. Other plants in this family include Rudbeckia, coreopsis and sunflowers. They are native to North America, most species specifically to the plains, but few are native to eastern US, as far north as Pennsylvania. These plants were used by the Native Americans for several ailments, including colds and snake bites. When the Europeans discovered the medicinal value of this genus, they took it back with them along with goldenrod.

Most often referred to as coneflowers, the plant genus Echinacea should not be confused with Rudbeckia. These are two very different plants, but the common name is often confused between the two genera. This is a good reason to begin using the Latin names of plants instead of common names, especially when learning that one of the Echinaceas is actually yellow and resembles one of the Rudbeckias!

The most common species that is found in the nurseries and garden centers is Echinacea purpurea. This purple coneflower is naturally found in the mid-west. If this plant is in your garden, you’ll be sure to have birds, butterflies and bees visiting them on a daily basis. There’s a lot of breeding that has been done with this species, from crossing different species (hybridizing) to selections (choosing a particular plant within a group of plants that have special characteristics one is looking for). This has made it possible for the gardener to find a coneflower in almost any color – orange, red, pink, white and yellow.

One of the more common plant selections of E. purpurea includes ‘Magnus’, named "Perennial Plant of the Year" in 1998. This status drew attention to the coneflowers, ramping up the breeding programs for this genus. E. purpurea ‘White Swan’ is a white form of purple coneflower and very easy to find in the nurseries and garden centers. The white flowers add brightness to any garden, especially in the evening as the sun is setting. Others include ‘Elton Knight’, chosen for its more compact habit, ‘Ruby Star’, excellent for its deep purple petals, and ‘Bravado’ for its large flowers.

Echinacea paradoxa is a yellow flowering species of coneflower. This plant is native to Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas. Although not found naturally in Pennsylvania or Maryland, it can grow very well here. This species, in addition to E. purpurea, has been used in the breeding of many of the new colors of Echinaceas, like ‘Marmalade’ (orange) and ‘Maui Sunshine’ (yellow). E. paradoxa and E. tennesseensis have also been crossed to create some very colorful breeds.

E. paradoxa has yellow drooping petals and reaches about 3’ high when in flower. This species is not easily found in the industry for retail; however, I suspect it will become more common as the popularity increases due to its yellow flowers.

In addition to many flower colors available as a result of breeding, double flowers are also becoming more available. ‘Secret Glow (golden yellow), ‘Raspberry Truffle’ (pink), and ‘Coconut Lime’ (white) are commonly found in the garden centers. Although double flowers are not recommended to grow in the garden if your goal is to attract pollinators, the double flowering plants create interest and a blast of color in most any garden when mixed with other pollinator-attracting plants.

A fortune, or downfall, to working in a nursery, which I do on weekends, is all the options when choosing plants for my own garden. I just purchased E. ‘Hot Papaya’ (orange-red, double flower) for my garden to add a bright color to an otherwise quiet garden. I labored on this decision, as there are many other varieties of coneflowers to choose from. This one, however, I am very excited about, as it really does brighten the garden.

Other species of coneflowers include E. angustifolia, E. pallida, E. tennesseensis, and E. laevigata, the last two species considered endangered in the wild. E. tennesseensis is native to Tennessee; E. laevigata is the native coneflower to PA and a few states in the Southeast. The straight species reproduce via seeds, making them long residents in the garden or meadow.

E. tennensseensis is unique as it has almost cupped petals with narrow foliage, making it an interesting addition to a garden. E. pallida, also quite unique, has droopy, narrow petals, with flowers about four inches across. The centers, or cones, of the flower are reddish-brown and dominant with the petals ranging in colors from pale pink to dark pink. It’s one of the tallest coneflowers, reaching up to 40 inches and has narrow leaves. E. pallida is native to the mid-west, south-east and north-east US.

In nature, Echinaceas can be found in meadows and prairies, so full sun is best. They are also tolerant of drier conditions, although in order to get them established in a garden, watering is necessary. They bloom from June through late July, and sporadically through September. Most get to be 25 – 30 inches tall. Some, however, are shorter, 20 inches or so, and some are taller, up to 40 inches. Most coneflowers are considered a great cut flower and with many colors, forms and sizes available, should be a staple in every gardener’s garden.

A great reference for Echinaceas is Coneflowers for the Mid-Atlantic Region - Mt. Cuba Center. This document can be found on-line. Mt. Cuba Center trialed many Echinaceas and released their results in this document in 2009. Another interesting article is located here: .

After doing some research, check out the garden centers and nurseries. I can say from experience, going into a plant place with lots of options can be overwhelming and exhilarating, especially when the plants are blooming. So many colors, so many sizes, so very exciting! Enjoy your garden!

Read other articles by Mary Ann Ryan

Read other articles on ecological gardening & native plants

Read other articles on plants and gardens