June 6, 2011

Cone Flower Power

Plant breeders have been generating an Echinacea revolution, giving us cone flowers in an amazing spectrum of colours.

BY SCOTT PEARCE

The delicate pastel-coloured petals of ‘Hope’ will enhance any garden.

For some, “flower power” conjures visions of a ’60s flower child, with daisies in her hair, singing folk songs while sitting cross-legged in daisy-embroidered jeans. Others imagine a summer garden filled with plants, bursting with daisy blossoms in a rainbow of groovy shades. The daises on the jeans could be any one of hundreds of different species – all members of the Asteracaea family – but in a contemporary garden the daisies flowering in a rainbow of colours are probably cone flowers.

Over the past decade, plant breeders have been introducing new cone flowers – cultivars of Echinacea – at a dizzying rate, resulting in a kind of cone flower revolution. While Echinacea experts have included a variety of “improvements” in their hybridizing efforts, including better performance, earlier blooming, larger flowers, a more compact growth habit and unusual flower forms, their most remarkable result is an amazing spectrum of flower colours. The colours of cone flowers in West Coast gardens used to be limited to deep pink, mauve or white, but new cultivars display petals in many shades of yellow, orange, coral and magenta.

The vibrant ‘Tomato Soup’ reaches 80 cm and produces 16-cm-diameter flowers.

The horticurious will appreciate knowing how hybridizers came up with all these new cultivars: by making crosses between our common Echinacea purpurea and a variety of other species, including E. paradoxa, E. angustifolia, and E. tennesseensis. (Painstaking work – we salute them!) The majority of us are satisfied to simply marvel at the results.

The Big Sky Series of Echinacea, introduced by Itsaul Plants of Georgia, includes ‘Harvest Moon,’ sporting deep golden-yellow surrounding an orange-tinged cone, the fragrant ‘Sunrise,’ with soft yellow petals, and ‘Sundown,’ which produces a bounty of fragrant orange summer blooms. All grow to at least 60 to 75 cm high.

Terra Nova Nurseries, outside Portland, Oregon, is responsible for introducing literally dozens of Echinacea cultivars. Most memorable (in name as well as colour) are ‘Tomato Soup’ and ‘Mac ’n’ Cheese.’ ‘Tomato Soup’ grows to a statuesque 80 cm and produces 15-cm-diameter tomato-red flowers. ‘Mac ’n’ Cheese’ stays a bit shorter at about 65 cm, with golden yellow flowers. Other Terra Nova cultivars include ‘Hope,’ with large, soft pink blossoms, and ‘Coral Reef,’ a 90-cm-high variety that produces dark orange, coral-tinged petals that surround a large coral cone.

A group of brilliant cone flowers introduced by Itsaul Plants of Georgia.

To some, green flowers may seem redundant, but green cone flowers help create wonderful contrasts in a garden filled with rich and vibrant colours, and do the same in cut flower arrangements. From highly regarded garden designer Piet Oudolf, of the Netherlands, comes ‘Green Jewel,’ a compact variety that grows to 50 cm with light green petals surrounding a darker green cone. ‘Green Envy,’ a truly unique cone flower discovered and introduced by gardener Mark Veeder, of upstate New York, makes a superb cut flower and boasts lovely jade-green petals which become marked with magenta as they age.

Forty years ago, “flower power” may have been cool, baby, but it was a drag trying to find more than a few cone flower selections at even the largest specialty nurseries. Well, the times they are a-changin’, and with so many amazing selections of Echinacea readily available, the summer of 2011 is the perfect time to invigorate your garden with some cone flower power!

Scott Pearce, a plant buyer and merchandiser at GardenWorks, graduated in Landscape Horticulture long before Echinaceas became so popular.

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