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Echinaceas for Summer Fun
by Caleb Melchoir - August 2013

Coneflowers used to be “Auntie plants.” Remember? Something that grows well, looks pretty for much of the year, but never does anything that exciting or spectacular. Several of my Aunts really did have them, growing in masses of washy self-seeded pink cones along the backside of their garages. The goldfinches enjoyed them, but they’re the only ones who ever paid much attention. For all I know, the echinaceas are probably still there and multiplying. The goldfinches, too.

As we are so often reminded by television announcers, business forecasters and technology-oriented youngsters with metal in their hands and plugs in their ears, times have changed. Echinaceas have not lagged behind.

Walk into any garden center in the last five years and you’ll, no doubt, be confronted with some form or variation of coneflower (Echinacea spp.). No longer are gardeners content with washed-out flowers with floppy petals. Today, you can get echinaceas in all the fruit punch colors and with flowers that would not squash if you rolled over them with a bulldozer.

Unfortunately, breeders have been in such a hurry to release the latest breakthroughs in coneflower weirdness that many of these varieties haven’t been widely tested for garden performance. Even the species coneflowers are short-lived perennials. They may seem to return reliably for decades, but it’s not original plants that return at the back of your aunt’s garage — it’s their abundant seedlings. The new varieties, especially those with bizarre flower forms, are often sterile and won’t reseed. When your original plant dies, you’re out of luck.

When I worked at a garden center, I often faced scowling gardeners who were unhappy that their beautifully colored, and sometimes very expensive, coneflowers had failed to return. It was always a happy day when someone came in with a good report. To spare myself the grief — and to ensure that my customers went away satisfied — I took notes of which varieties performed best in my own garden as well as the gardens of friends and acquaintances. The following varieties are a few that have consistently performed well in my garden, and other people’s gardens, too.

We begin with one of the showiest: ‘Hot Papaya’. This variety from Arie Blom of the Netherlands is worth growing just to see the mesmerizing color of its flowers. Every time I see it, I’m surprised. The flowers are a vibrant orange-red with a base of light gold. Flowers in other genuses with this color usually have a slight sheen. ‘Hot Papaya’ has completely matte flowers with absolutely no sheen. And don’t worry, it’s a vigorous and reliable plant.

When ‘Hot Papaya’ matures, its flowers become full and very poufy.

Young flowers of ‘Hot Papaya’ have more of an anemone form, but are still strong colored.

I’ve actually seen ‘Hot Papaya’ growing on multiple occasions in gardens where the owner had shirked their weekly weeding. Nothing is more astonishing than seeing these vibrant flowers protruding from what I had assumed was a weed patch. Think carefully about where you plant ‘Hot Papaya’ — with its bright red-orange pompoms, it will be noticed no matter where you put it.

Unlike other brightly-hued echinaceas, it doesn’t really fade in full sun. I would site in in some shade to tone down the color of the flowers. Perhaps it is most appropriate for the cutting garden.   

For an easier-to-use and equally reliable plant, look for the Big Sky Series ‘Sunrise’. The Big Sky Series of coneflowers from Itsaul Plants in Georgia were some of the first varieties to offer flowers in shades of apricot and peach. While some of the more exotic colors didn’t fare so well in Midwestern gardens, I found that ‘Sunrise’ — the pure yellow variety — performed well.

‘Sunrise’ is a heavy bloomer, its butter-yellow flowers a perfect match for silver foliage.

The sharp goldenrod-yellow flowers of Echinacea paradoxa and many of the newer hybrids tend to clash with anything but the brassiest hues. In contrast, ‘Sunrise’ is a peacemaker. Its beautiful, wide flowers open lemon-yellow with a deep brown center and fade to soft creamy hues. A moderately-sized plant, with flower stems to 30 inches, ‘Sunrise’ is also beautifully fragrant. It’s also sweetly scented and repeat blooms every few weeks.

‘Little Annie’ was introduced with miniaturization as its main asset, but it has become well known for bloom power, as well.

If you miss the soft pink and lilac tones for which the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is named, but want something more up-to-date, ‘Little Annie’ is for you. ‘Little Annie’ has flowers much like the traditional purple coneflower, but on a dwarf plant that reaches only 1 foot high.

I remember, about 10 years ago, when ‘Kim’s Knee High’ was all the rage in the echinacea world — people were happy for something a little shorter than the 3- to 4-foot coneflowers they were used to. ‘Little Annie’ brings purple coneflowers to the very front of the border. It is also very free-flowering, with hundreds of flowers produced every season.

These are not necessarily the most exotic coneflowers. There are varieties with fancier flower forms, crazier colors and other strange attributes to tempt and intrigue the helpless gardener. Given the rate of today’s releases, there are probably new varieties almost as reliable. But who would know?

From my experience, these three — ‘Hot Papaya’, ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Little Annie’ — are some of the best long-term echinaceas for garden performance. Pull out a few of those old washy pinks in your front garden, not to mention from behind the garage. The goldfinches might not notice a difference, but you certainly will.

Photos courtesy of Calen Melchoir


Caleb Melchior is living the prairie dream as a graduate landscape architecture student in Manhattan, Kansas. He looks forward to the day when he, once again, has a garden of his own in which to grow all the plants that catch his eye and tickle his fancy.


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