Echinacea purpurea ‘Pica Bella’ scored a 5 out of 5 points on the Mt. Cuba Center’s scale, which measures habit, floral display, disease resistance, hardiness and foliage quality. (Photo courtesy Mt. Cuba Center)

Whether they’re called Echinacea purpurea or coneflower, these stalwart native perennials stand the test of time as iconic favorites, unfailingly handsome, hardy and garden friendly.
Generally recognized for their purple or pink petals and seedhead centers, the traditional colors still abound, but they also now come in strikingly vivid shades with copyrighted names like Emperor Purple, Visionary Dream and Kismet Raspberry.
Thanks to painstaking breeding efforts, there are now numerous hues in nearly every shade of red, orange, yellow, and green, such as Cantaloupe, Santa Fe, Peacock, Tiki Torch, Dixie Sun, Chiquita, Solar Flare, and Green Jewel, just to name a few.
Several sport bi-colored petals, some transition in color throughout the season, with a few varieties sprouting atop daringly dark, even black, stems.
The classic cone-like seed head set off with a demure petaled collar has now been enhanced by a variety of eye catching fluffy double poofs bearing fanciful names like Double Scoop Bubblegum, Southern Belle and Butterfly Kisses.
A number of North American and European horticultural companies have been actively producing an ever more bountiful smorgasbord of enticing specimens available through nursery outlets.
Christine Little, a Queen Anne’s County Master Gardener and owner of A Little Farm and Nursery in Stevensville, said Echinacea is a great option for attracting pollinators.
“When I was an estate gardener, native Echinacea was a staple in nearly every sunny area,” Little said.
The nursery was listed by supplier Hand-Picked for You’s website as one of four Maryland nurseries carrying some of the certified hybrid varieties, reflecting its owners’ longtime appreciation of Echinacea.
The hybrids she sells, including one called Mamma Mia and several from the Sombrero and Salsa series, offer vivid colors and frequently sell out, she noted.
Several Sombrero varieties she planted herself have proven to be hardy, coming back well, Little added. But one “con” connected to hybrids has been that they are largely sterile and don’t produce seeds to regenerate or feed birds.
In order to assist home gardeners and nursery professionals supplying them in making informed choices, the Mt. Cuba Center of Hockessin, Del., has undertaken two Echinacea trial plantings, the first in 2007-09 and most recently in 2018-20.
Sam Hoadley, the center’s manager of horticultural research, has been directly involved with the most recent trial series, which tested not only for hardiness and other traditional attributes, but for pollinator friendliness, as well.
“So many more varieties were introduced following the first trials, we wanted to test those, and this time evaluate pollinator information,” Hoadley said.
Interestingly, two of the top scoring specimens of original trial also came out ahead in the latest plant evaluation. Both times, Echinacea purpurea “Pica Bella” scored a 5 out of 5 points on the Center’s scale, which measures habit, floral display, disease resistance, hardiness and foliage quality.
Echinacea purpurea “Fragrant Angel” scored in the top tier again and recorded the highest number of tracked butterfly visits.
Several other highly rated specimens were also noted for pollinator attractiveness, including “Sensation Pink,” with what the trial report characterized as “one of the most vibrant displays, neon-pink flowers held on dark stems that further accentuate their otherworldly color.”
It also was among the top five pollinator-attracting plants tested.
For Hoadley, the take-home message from the latest trial was that cultivars most closely relating to the original native purpurea varieties experiencing the least amount of human intercession, proved the most pollinator friendly.
The long-stemmed coneflower has also been regarded as a source of beneficial health related properties.
According to the Mt. Sinai Health System, laboratory and animal test results indicate that the plant’s active substances can help “boost immune function, relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and have hormonal, antiviral and antioxidant effects.”
Purple, pink and white
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