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Keeping Up With Coreopsis
by Caleb Melchior - July 2014

Contorted petals and neon yellow coloring make ‘Electric Avenue’ an unforgettable addition to garden schemes.

Back in the 1990s, when pants’ waists were higher and jean jackets more heavily bedazzled, gardeners went wild over ‘Moonbeam’ coreopsis. Its 12-inch mounds of thready foliage were covered, all summer long, with pale yellow stars. Gardeners planted them in rows, in drifts, in straggly clumps, and in sad little individual mounds. As long as the weather stayed warm, they never stopped flowering.

Gardeners today still love ‘Moonbeam’ coreopsis. But while gardeners have been stuck on ‘Moonbeam’, breeders from across the world have been exploring the wider possibilities of color and form found in the genus Coreopsis. These new varieties are bigger, taller, and bolder than any coreopsis most gardeners have grown.

Anxious gardeners looking for the colored lumps of older garden coreopsis varieties are frustrated by the more luxurious growth of newer varieties. Plant purveyors and gardeners have often attempted to replace the ‘Moonbeam’ and the like with these newer cultivars, an approach that has ended in frustration and disappointment. Instead, it is essential to recognize the individual attributes of each new cultivar and strategize how to place them to best advantage in the garden.

Recent varieties that thrive in Midwestern gardens are primarily found in two series, the Cruizin’ series from breeder Patti Bauer and the Big Bang series from breeder Darrell Probst.

Cultivars in the Cruizin’ series are typified by 18-inch plants with a mounding habit and multitudes of small (less than 2 inches across), brightly colored flowers with narrow petals. Their foliage is also narrow, reflecting their threadleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata) parentage. Because they were bred and tested in Pennsylvania, most of these varieties are fully winter-hardy throughout the Midwest as long as their roots are well-drained in winter. Coreopsis hate wet feet at any time of year, but winter wet is particularly deadly.

Within the Cruizin’ series, individual varieties are different primarily in flower color. ‘Route 66’ was one of the first Cruizin’ varieties. Its flowers are butter yellow, washed with burgundy at the center. ‘Broad Street’ is one of the brightest and most heavily flowering cultivars. Its blazing orange and scarlet flowers are flushed with gold on the outside, fading to yellow at their petals’ tips. ‘Sunset Strip’ has brilliant gold petals with scarlet centers. ‘Electric Avenue’ has small neon-yellow flowers. Their hue is strangely brilliant, standing out among the busiest of plant collections. Its flowers are often contorted, making it a unique addition to the gardener’s array.

One of the first of the Cruizin’ varieties, ‘Route 66’ has flowers of pale yellow that appear painted with red towards the center of the flower.

‘Broad Street’ flowers heavily throughout the summer and fall, with vibrant mango and red blooms.

The Big Bang series extends the range of coreopsis colors beyond yellow to embrace a range of softer, more painterly shades. Plants in the Big Bang series are typically upright, 24-28 inches tall and rather narrower, with large, full flowers (2-3 inches across) held high above their dense clumps of basal leaves. A few thoughtful chops yield the best performance on Big Bang varieties. Cutting the plants back by half in late April encourages additional branching and heavier flowering. An additional cutback, usually by half, after their first flowering will stimulate further repeat bloom throughout the summer.

‘Mercury Rising’ is one of the finest new coreopsis. Its deep red petals make up 2-3 inch flat daisies, their rich coloring brightened by a central puff of gold stamens. In the hottest days of summer, its petals fade at the edges, emphasizing the richness of their color. ‘Full Moon’ has lemon-yellow flowers. ‘Cosmic Eye’ is creamy-yellow with a clear ring of burgundy at the center. ‘Star Cluster’ has creamy petals with purple-flushed centers and edges. Cooler weather brings out the dark color in the flowers of the bicolor cultivars.

‘Mercury Rising’ is highly attractive to pollinators, even in hot weather when its petals fade at the edges.

‘Cosmic Eye’ has lemon yellow flowers with burgundy at the petals’ base and a bright boss of gold stamens at the center.

Depending on the individual plant’s habit, coreopsis’ optimal garden use differs greatly. The squat, more compact varieties, such as most of those in the Cruizin’ series, fit well as gentle mounds at the front of garden beds or as fillers in high-summer containers. ‘Electric Avenue’ blends particularly well with bright blue or pink companions. Shock your neighbors by blending it with fierce pink rose verbena (Glandularia canadensis). For a container you won’t forget, let ‘Broad Street’ coreopsis foam around the upright blades of a purple cordyline (Cordyline ‘Atropurpurea’) as ‘Amazon Sunset’ lotus (Lotus berthelotii ‘Amazon Sunset’) trails down, its strange sea-green foliage erupting in orange, claw-like flowerheads.

Contorted petals and neon yellow coloring make ‘Electric Avenue’ an unforgettable addition to garden schemes.

Tall coreopsis varieties are dream meadow plants. Their slender stems hold aloft crowds of bright daisies. In the wild, on roadway verges and woodland edges, tall coreopsis grow in vast drifts, often intermingled with oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and tall fescues (Festuca sp.). Their bright flowers glow against the gloomy pillars of red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) growing in abandoned fencerows.

Ketchup in the center and mustard at the edges, ‘Sunset Strip’ combines strikingly with Shasta daisies, such as ‘Freak’ (Leucanthemum ‘Freak’)

‘Mercury Rising’, the stalwart red, blooms to perfection against a white-washed wall. Its rich color also blends well with cream-colored roses and salmon yarrow (Achillea x ‘Peach Beauty’). Intermingle the plum-flushed flowers of ‘Star Cluster’ with blue-tinted switch grasses, such as ‘Dallas Blues’ or ‘Prairie Sky’ (Panicum virgatum ‘Dallas Blues’, P.v. ‘Prairie Sky’). Sprinkling taller coreopsis varieties within dense perennial plantings can help bring a sense of lightness and movement to even the most crammed garden.

Adding darkness and solidity to bright planting schemes, ‘Mercury Rising’ has unusually strong red flowers.

‘Star Cluster’ sits softly within garden schemes, with pink and white flowers that change dramatically in color depending on temperature.

Next time you wander to the coreopsis aisle of your local nursery, don’t stop at ‘Moonbeam’. Take advantage of the breeders’ explorations to fill your garden with the graceful beauty and movement of these elegant daisies spangled with ruby and gold.

Photos courtesy of Caleb Melchior.


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


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