Even for someone who is well acquainted with the genus Echinacea, many of the latest coneflowers provoke a double take. Some are almost unrecognizable; others represent a dramatic departure from that which nature has made.
It’s the wild species that Kelly Kindscher, an ethnobotanist and professor of environmental studies at the University of Kansas, has made the central theme of a career targeting prairie plant communities.
“It’s really an iconic American genus,” said Dr. Kindscher on Echinacea, of which many taxonomists count seven naturally occurring species, although some recognize as many as ten. Only one, Echinacea angustifolia – the westernmost species called “the prairie’s most important medicinal plant,” used by Native Americans for hundreds of years – is found outside the continental United States, in a small portion of the Canadian plains.
Some of the most recent cultivars are graceful, agrees Dr. Kindscher, with their unexpected sunset colors or fluffy double flowers. He gets it: He may be a senior scientist with the Kansas Biological Survey, but he’s also an avid gardener himself.
But you have to wonder what the pollinators that evolved alongside unadulterated native coneflowers — “tough prairie plants adapted for life among grasses,” as Dr. Kindscher she described – think of these surprisingly different versions.
What do insects make of the coneflower whose prominent cones of small, fertile disc florets—an easy landing site for their pollen-gathering visits—are nearly obscured by what look like pompoms? In these double flowers, derived from a chance mutation first observed in a cut flower field in the Netherlands in 1997, the reproductive structure has been replaced by something resembling a petal. And so the ecological services that the flower can provide are reduced, with less pollen, less nectar and usually fewer seeds.
The cone that forms the center of each flower and is the prefix of the plant’s common name was there for another reason, too, said Dr. childish. The spiny structure was intended to deter grazing predators. (The Latin name Echinacea, which is derived from the same Greek word as urchin and sea urchin, refers to that feature.)
Even the familiar Echinacea you see growing in pots – the basic E. purpurea or purple coneflower – isn’t quite itself anymore. It has undergone more subtle changes than those dramatic double blooms, but the store-bought purpurea has wider petals than nature’s version, a trend that started in the 1960s when a German breeder began making selections in favor of that trait. In the wild form, what we think of as the petals (technically the ray florets) are narrower and longer.
So before you go shopping, you need to make a decision: Are you planting a pollinator garden or just want some high summer blooms for visual consumption?
mt. Cuba Center, the native botanical garden and research facility in Delaware, has some advice before you go crazy, which a recent report from the organization describes as “a tradeoff for style over substance.” Choose well, and you can have both.
Echinacea put to the test
Mount Cuba completed a second multi-year study of Echinacea in 2020, comparing its many species and cultivars — 75 coneflowers in all, said Sam Hoadley, the living lab manager who led the study.
From 2007 to 2009, the center had studied 48 species of coneflower. But with their growing popularity and the plethora of new cultivars — sometimes called nativars, for cultivars of native plants — it seemed time to revisit them, he said. And the latest trial was designed to include a feature that hadn’t been on the radar the first time: a pollinator survey or insect visit count conducted by a team of citizen scientists, paying special attention to the difference between single and double flowers. and their attraction to bees, wasps and butterflies.
Some of the new Echinacea varieties are selections – meaning a population of seedlings was observed and the best of the lot put out. Others are hybrids resulting from the deliberate crossing of one species with another. Echinacea plants apparently like to do that themselves.
“I think if we had grown all the seedlings that we removed from our trials, we would have had a whole kaleidoscope of plants,” said Mr Hoadley.
“It’s a promiscuous strain,” said Dr. Kindscher, “and we even see hybrids in the wild.”
So far, he hasn’t seen any hybridization between cultivars and wild plants, but concern has been raised and researchers are keeping their eyes peeled.
An insight for gardeners who see an unusual-looking plant popping up in or near a place where they previously grew: “When people say, ‘My echinacea has returned,'” said Mr. Hoadley, “what has happened is that seedlings germinated next to a parent. It’s not a return.”
One species in particular has proved irresistible to breeders, prompting the development of newly colored coneflowers beginning in the 1990s: the canary-yellow Echinacea paradoxa, with a native range in the mid-Ozarks.
The epithet “paradoxa” is significant, as this coneflower is a paradox in a genus whose palette is typically limited to purples and pinks. With yellow added to the gene pool, red and orange coneflowers became possible.
And the winner is …
Not all coneflowers are as easy to grow or modify as E. purpurea, a plant native to open forests in the eastern United States. The leaves are wider than those of other species, which betrays the habitat of origin, indicating that the leaf has enough leaf surface to do the work of photosynthesis, even in low light conditions.
So it’s no surprise that selections and cultivars derived at least in part from E. purpurea generally performed best in the Mount Cuba trials. Many of this coneflower’s cousins have a taproot designed to push into dry, thin soil for moisture and penetrating fissures in fractured rock. The taproot E. angustifolia, for example, “loves the climate of the Great Plains and tends to die out in Eastern and English gardens,” said Dr. childish. But E. purpurea has fibrous roots that are more forgiving even when transplanted.
“Many of the best-performing cultivars come from purpurea,” said Mr. Hoadley, “and some of the best are the ones created by selection — without much human influence.”
Newer is not always better
What particularly struck Mr Hoadley: A few stars from the 2007-2009 trial remained the biggest hits more than a decade later.
The traditionally colored Pica Bella, a compact variety with prominent orange cones that are a magnet for pollinators, was “our absolute top performer,” he said. In the quest to patent new traits and varieties, it seems that excellent older plants like these are sometimes left behind.
“Ask your nursery about it,” Mr. Hoadley said. “Hopefully consumer demand will help bring the supply back to greater supply.” (Dedicated mail-order suppliers like Digging Dog Nursery and Broken Arrow Nursery offer it some seasons.)
The white-flowered Fragrant Angel, also a purpurea, had by far the most butterfly visits of all the plants in the trial, and was also a hit with bees and wasps. Butterflies generally account for maybe 5 percent of a coneflower’s insect visits, but this one scored 14 percent.
Another highly rated white variety was Snow Cone, a compact plant with the species Echinacea tennesseensis in its lineage.
Among the best performing warm colored cultivars were the coral Santa Fe, Postman and the Intense Orange offerings in the Kismet series – far more potent than early introductions in this color range, which often proved to be short-lived.
Echinacea pallida would have liked drier, less rich soil than the experimental garden offered, Mr. Hoadley admitted, but the dramatically long, drooping petals caught his eye.
Also dr. Kindscher wondered why it is not grown on a larger scale. “I don’t know what breeders are working on, but an orange or red pallida nativar with long, drooping petals sounds like a good one,” he said.
And not surprisingly, not a single double-flowered form that was tried received even an honorable mention.
It was the medicinal power of Echinacea, learned by Native Americans, that interested European settlers in the plant. Each tribe had its own word for coneflower, and the translations also differed, writes Dr. Kindscher in his 2016 book, “Echinacea: Herbal Medicine With a Wild History.”
The translations ranged from “medicine makes you numb” (Kiowa Apache) to “cold medicine” (Hidatsa) and “something used to bring something down” (Lakota).
The first plants were returned to England at the end of the 17th century. Gradually, coneflowers found their way into gardens, both physical and decorative, marking the long-ago roots of their now rapidly evolving history in modern horticulture.
The same bioactive compounds that made the E. angustifolia species the most widely used medicinal plant of the Plains tribes, said Dr. Kindscher, served as protection against insects. Like the spiny cone, their chemistry is a defense against predation.
And speaking of that spiky cone, it’s not just Dr. Kindscher, mr. Hoadley and the pollinators who advocate keeping him intact and hedgehog-like. American goldfinches, who love a good meal of coneflowers, wholeheartedly agree.
Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A way to garden, and a book of the same name.
For weekly email updates on residential real estate news, sign up here. Follow us on twitter: @nytrealestate.