By Sam Hoadley and Laura Reilly
Echinacea, also known as coneflowers, are fabulous native plants that deserve a place in every garden. Mt. Cuba Center has now trialed the genus Echinacea twice; the first time in 2007 to 2009 (48 cultivars and species evaluated), and again between 2018 to 2020 (75 cultivars and species evaluated). While many of the cultivars in the most recent evaluation were introduced since the conclusion of the original trial there was an overlap of a dozen cultivars and species, several of which proved to be excellent performers in both trials. Detailed research reports from both Echinacea trials, and descriptions of every plant included in our second trial are available on our website: mtcubacenter.org/research/trial-garden.
In our recent report, we highlighted the top 12 performers from the 75 Echinacea we trialed, any of which would be excellent additions to gardens in the Mid-Atlantic. While we do our best to remain impartial in our evaluation and let the ratings tell the story of our trial’s top performing plants, we inevitably form attachments to certain species and cultivars. While a few of our preferred Echinacea are found on the top performer list, we included a few additional plants that could be excellent garden subjects when placed in the proper site. In no specific order, here are a few of our favorite plants from our most recent Echinacea trial.
Echinacea purpurea ‘Pica Bella’
It is no secret that Echinacea purpurea ‘Pica Bella’ is an outstanding coneflower cultivar. It received top marks in our first Echinacea trial and earned the highest score possible in our second evaluation. On a weekly basis from April through September we collected data on every coneflower in the Trial Garden and each week we admired the remarkable consistency displayed by ‘Pica Bella’. Each plant was identical in vigor and habit with sturdy stems and a profuse floral display from late June through July. The flowers of ‘Pica Bella’ are held more horizontally than typical Echinacea purpurea but the pink coloration is very similar to the species. In addition to its established horticultural merit, ‘Pica Bella’ was also a preferred plant by insect pollinators in our trial. This plant is easy to incorporate in a wide variety of garden settings and is used in the formal gardens at Mt. Cuba Center. By following a few tips for Echinacea culture, you can ensure that ‘Pica Bella’ will return as a reliable performer in your garden for years to come. The most important factor for success with all coneflowers is providing them with soils that have excellent drainage. However, thanks to its Echinacea purpurea heritage, ‘Pica Bella’ can thrive in moist well-drained soils as long as they do not remain wet or waterlogged, particularly over the winter. Echinacea purpurea ‘Pica Bella’ is also tolerant of light shade although the most vigorous and floriferous specimens are located in full sun (six or more hours of direct sun a day). While Echinacea ‘Pica Bella’ is not commonly available in garden centers, it can often be sourced from specialty online nurseries.
Echinacea pallida, or pale purple coneflower, and its cultivar ‘Hula Dancer’ were two of our favorite plants in the entire trial. The flowers of the pale purple coneflower are, in our opinion, the most elegant of the genus with dangling white to light pink petals that provide movement in the landscape with the slightest breeze. Bees were frequently observed visiting Echinacea pallida and goldfinches flocked to the seed heads of this species in late summer and fall. Unfortunately, they did not achieve high ratings mostly due to their floppy habits and consequently were not heavily featured in our recent research report. The key to successful cultivation of Echinacea pallida is to grow them in lean soils with excellent drainage. These conditions better simulate the prairie and grassland habitats where this species thrives in the wild. Additionally, planting Echinacea pallida amongst other native prairie grasses and forbs will provide a natural support structure to help keep its tall stems upright. If you have a hot and dry corner of your garden, Echinacea pallida might just fit the bill for you. Pale purple coneflower is available from many native plant nurseries and garden centers.
Echinacea ‘POST301’ (Postman)
Echinacea Postman from AB-Cultivars in the Netherlands was our favorite red-flowered cultivar. Postman coneflower stole the show for us with its oversized oxblood-colored cones and reflexed chili-red petals. In addition to their spectacular blooms their buds have a unique ornamental quality. A few weeks before blooming begins in late June, buds emerge through the foliage and give the appearance of miniature sunflowers, effectively extending the ornamental value of this cultivar. If provided with full sun and well drained soils, Postman can be used in a variety of garden designs thanks to the tall and sturdy stems that display its flowers so effectively. ‘Postman’ was also a favorite of insect pollinators in the Trial Garden. Other excellent red-flowered Echinacea that deserve a place in gardens of the mid-Atlantic include ‘Santa Fe’ and KISMET® Intense Orange.
Echinacea paradoxa var. paradoxa
Like Echinacea pallida, Echinacea paradoxa fared poorly in our scoring, primarily as a result of a floppy habit, but we found it quite charming. Echinacea paradoxa produces a deep carrot-like taproot that allows this species to compete and thrive in its native haunts in the Ozarks, but excess moisture and nutrients are this species’ downfall in many gardens. If provided with lean soils with excellent drainage, and possibly some nearby neighboring plants for support, this species would likely be much more upright. The canary yellow petals set this species apart from the rest of the genus Echinacea, which is typically pink to purple. Thanks to this unique coloration, the incorporation of Echinacea paradoxa into breeding programs has resulted an incredible array of new colors in coneflower cultivars. The petals of this species droop in a similar way to Echinacea pallida although the individual rays of Echinacea paradoxa are wider and more substantial. This species was also the earliest to bloom in our trial, producing its first flowers in early June. Another notable feature of this species was its exceptional foliage. The leaves were some of the most disease-free of any coneflower in the entire trial and remained dark emerald green from spring all the way through summer. As the growing season concluded and seeds ripened, goldfinches descended on this plant and truly seemed to prefer this to other coneflowers in our Trial Garden. Echinacea paradoxa is available for purchase as seed or plants from specialty online growers and native plant nurseries.
Echinacea ‘Glowing Dream’ and Echinacea ‘Sensation Pink’
Echinacea ‘Glowing Dream’ from Terra Nova and Echinacea ‘Sensation Pink’ from Marco van Noort in the Netherlands are two comparable top performers that we absolutely loved. The one noticeable difference between these two cultivars is that ‘Sensation Pink’ had attractive dark stems which was an unusual trait in our trial. Glowing neon pink is the closest that words can come to describe the flowers of these cultivars; they really must be seen in person to be appreciated. Add to that the bumper crop of flowers produced from the middle of June though the middle of July and you have two truly show-stopping plants. ‘Glowing Dream’ and ‘Sensation Pink’ performed flawlessly in the average garden soils and full sun of our Trial Garden and would be right at home in a variety of garden designs and locations with adequate drainage and ample sunlight. In addition to their substantial garden merit, both coneflowers were amongst the most preferred coneflowers of insect pollinators in our evaluation.
Find out more about the trial here.