Grow Echinacea for cut flowers and Pollinators
(Echinacea purpurea) aka coneflower, purple coneflower
Echinacea purpurea, like big, colorful daisies with long sturdy stems make bold statements in bouquets and can be used for their dried cones in dried arrangements. Their wide petals with a spiky cone in the center provide a perfect landing platform for pollinators like bees, butterflies, and moths. Cones can remain on the plant through fall for the birds to feed on their seeds.
They’re North American natives, from the central to eastern North America, are fairly drought tolerant, good for us in the West. Plus, they’re deer resistant, and tolerate a range of soils, clay, shallow, or rocky.
USDA Zones 4
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Echinaceas are in the Asteracae family, which is the daisy family. The flowers are comprised of a spiky cone in the center with colored rays of petals surrounding. The species, Echinacea purpurea, is a pale pinkish-purple. But there has been a lot of plant breeding, especially over the past decade, that has created a huge variety of petal colors and even some doubles and semi-doubles. (But, it’s the singles that are best used by the pollinators.)
Flowers are to 4-6” wide. They bloom in early summer where I live, and again in fall if spent flower stems are cut back.
They all make striking cut flowers. However, since I’ve grown many of them, I have had some problems with wilting petals too soon after harvesting. If you have that problem, you’ll need to replace the wilted ones. I haven’t figured out how to prevent this, but I’ll keep experimenting.
The plants are perennial and deciduous, growing to 1’ or more wide and less than 1’ tall. Flowering stems reach 2-4’, depending on the variety.
Full sun. They can take hot, sunny conditions and a variety of soils. But for growing cut flowers, an average, amended garden soil is good. And they can handle some drought.
Plants can be started by seed or purchased at nurseries and from online nurseries.
Seeds are easy. I’ve seen directions to cold stratify the seed to get them started, but I’ve had better results from sowing into my seed flats without chilling. I keep my seed flats outside in early spring, and they do get some chilling that way. But I’ve also had good results from sowing them later without cold temperatures.
Flowering may start late in the first season if started by seed.
There are many excellent varieties that are offered by seed. There is a mix called ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ that’s very popular. You won’t know which color you’re getting, though, until they bloom.
If you buy ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ as plants from a nursery you can get the colors you want. Often, toward the end of summer or early fall, you can find them in flower and on sale. Plant in the fall and you’ll have flowers in the early summer.
Once your plants are growing, you can propagate them by division.
Echinacea purpurea clumps grow wider each year and can be divided after a few years. However, I have been able to propagate them with a plant in the ground for just one year.
Here’s what I do: when the plant is dormant in the winter, but not under snow, I find a tiny shoot on the outside of the clump, I carefully break it off with some vestige of a root at the bottom of it. I place that in a nice potting medium and in the spring it starts to root and then grow up top.
Echinaceas are a nice addition to any perennial flower bed. And they’re especially useful for a low- water bed. After planting new plants, water them well for the first year to get them established. After that they can withstand some drought.
Plants can be spaced 12” apart. If you want to think long term, you may want to give them more space,up to 2’ apart. They don’t need staking.
Echinaceas have a fairly long window for harvest the flowers. When the petals are fully unfurled till when the first row of anthers display the pollen is a good time. They should be cut down at the base and placed into cool or slightly warm water and stored in a cool, dark place.
Just keep in mind that I have occasional problems with early wilting petals, as described above.
The cones, when dried, are bold and pretty in dried arrangements. They should be picked as soon as they dry in the garden. If left too long they’ll get gray deteriorate from rain and weather.
But, if left through fall many birds like their seeds. So leave some for the birds!
One of my favorite purple Echinaceas is ‘Primadonna’, with a full array of purple petals that stick straight out for a pretty display. Flowers are 4-6” wide and stems grow to 30-34”. These are available from both specialty seed companies and online nurseries.
Another is a new introduction, ‘Raspberry Kismet’. It’s a deep raspberry color. It’s beautiful!
The next is ‘Ruby Star’, a deeper, redder purple with stems to 40-42” tall! These are available by seed, from Select Seeds and from online nurseries like High Country Gardens.
‘Tomato Soup’ is a brilliant red one that grows 28-32” tall. Only available by plants, and often found in local nurseries.
The ‘Big Sun’ series is a beautiful collection of colors including soft yellow ‘Sunrise’, soft orange ‘Sundown’, and rose-orange-red ‘Twilight’, all between 24-30” tall. These and many, many others are available from growjoy.com.
For white, one of the common ones is ‘Magnus White’ which is a shorter plant but widely available in local nurseries. As is the ‘Magnus’ purple one. Both are nice as cuts and landscape plants.
There’s also ‘Primadonna White’ that I will be trying by seed this year.
How many plants
Two or three of each color you desire should be enough to supply several bouquets during their bloom times. But, do remember that for a landscape aesthetic, you want to work with odd numbers of each color. That would be 3 each. Some of the pretty varieties can be pricey, so you can buy one and let it get large, and you can even propagate from it to expand your numbers.
GrowJoy’s online nursery and Bluestone Perennials have plants. Select Seeds has a variety of seeds and/or plants. Swallowtail Seeds had a good variety of seeds. And if you google Echinacea purpurea you will find many other sources. They are very popular now, especially since more people are planting for pollinators.