All About Echinaceas

All About Echinaceas

What are Echinaceas?

Echinacea also known as Coneflowers are the poster plant of native-plant gardening. These cheerful prairie natives are colorful and adaptable: they were the jewels of the prairie, and they sparkle in modern flower beds too, sharing space gracefully with roses, daylilies, iris — natives and non-natives of all kinds.


The prickly-headed coneflowers belong to the genus Echinacea, in the same family as black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia). They are tough plants with coarse foliage, but their abundant bloom makes up for the rough edges. Their colorful and sturdy flowers can be relied upon from midsummer through early fall.

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), with its glowing prickly orange dome and luminous purple petals, is the best-known of the native coneflowers. ‘Magnus’, which has flower stalks up to four feet tall, was named plant of the year by the Perennial Plant Association in 1998, and since then the selection of coneflowers has exploded: modern hybridizers have introduced a startling palette of pale lemon yellow, creamy white, soft pink, and rich magenta blooms. Fruity orange flowers, mop-topped doubles, and even fiery red coneflowers have come on the market and are all the rage.

Coneflowers are native to the eastern and central U. S., and they thrive in Zones 5-8. Some, including ‘Magnus’, are hardy to Zone 3, where winter temperatures may plummet to -30 degrees. Grow them in a sunny spot with well-drained soil. They should be watered regularly their first season in the garden, but well-established coneflowers tolerate heat and drought. Don’t pamper them: they are not bothered by pests and do not need fertilizer.

The prairies were once alive not just with grasses but with coneflowers and blazing stars, a combination that inspired the Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf’s bold, naturalistic plantings. His plant selection for the Lurie Garden in Chicago relies on a mix of native- and non-natives for a long season of color. Coneflowers are planted with native Blue Star (Amsonia), asters, sunny yellow Coreopsis, and handsome false indigo (Baptisia). Catmint, hardy geraniums, Japanese anemones, deep blue Salvias, and lots of ornamental grasses are woven into the dense tapestry of color and texture.

How long do Echinaceas bloom?

Coneflowers bloom for about two months, attracting birds and butterflies to the garden. After the flowers fade, the domed seedheads stand tall through the winter. Chickadees and goldfinches perch lightly on top to eat the seeds, and snow pulls a warm little cap on each seadhead. In early spring, cut the old flowerstalks back, and get ready for a fresh season of colorful, long-lasting, perennial blooms.

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How to Sow

Sowing Seed Indoors:

  • Sow echinacea seeds indoors 8-10 weeks before outdoor planting date in spring using a seed starting kit
  • Cover the seeds lightly with 1/4 inch of seed starting mix
  • Keep the soil moist at 65-70 degrees F
  • Seedlings emerge in 10-20 days
  • As soon as seedlings emerge, provide plenty of light on a sunny windowsill or grow seedlings 3-4 inches beneath fluorescent plant lights turned on 16 hours per day, off for 8 hours at night. Raise the lights as the plants grow taller. Incandescent bulbs will not work for this process because they will get too hot. Most plants require a dark period to grow, do not leave lights on for 24 hours.
  • Seedlings do not need much fertilizer, feed when they are 3-4 weeks old using a starter solution (half strength of a complete indoor houseplant food) according to manufacturer’s directions.
  • If you are growing in small cells, you may need to transplant the seedlings to 3 or 4 inch pots when seedlings have at least 2 pairs of true leaves before transplanting to the garden so they have enough room to develop strong roots
  • Before planting in the garden, seedling plants need to be “hardened off”. Accustom young plants to outdoor conditions by moving them to a sheltered place outside for a week. Be sure to protect them from wind and hot sun at first. If frost threatens at night, cover or bring containers indoors, then take them out again in the morning. This hardening off process toughens the plant’s cell structure and reduces transplant shock and scalding.

Sowing Directly in the Garden:

  • Direct sow in late summer at least 12 weeks before the ground freezes.
  • Remove weeds and work organic matter into the top 6-8 inches of soil; then level and smooth.
  • Sow seeds evenly and cover with 1/4 inches of fine soil.
  • Firm the soil lightly and keep it evenly moist.
  • Seedlings will emerge in 10-20 days.

Planting Potted Plants in the Garden:

  • Select a location in full sun with good rich moist organic soil.
  • Prepare the bed by turning the soil under to a depth of 6-12, inches removing any debris, and lightly raking as level as possible.
  • The addition of organic matter (leaf mold, compost, well-rotted manure) benefits all gardens and is essential in recently constructed neighborhoods.
  • Plant on a cloudy day or in late afternoon to reduce transplant shock.
  • Dig a hole for each plant large enough to amply accommodate the root ball.
  • Unpot the plant and gently loosen the root ball with your hands to encourage good root growth.
  • Place the top of the root ball even with the level of the surrounding soil. Fill with soil to the top of the root ball. Press soil down firmly with your hand.
  • Use the plant tag as a location marker.
  • Thoroughly water and apply a light mulch layer on top of the soil (1-2 inches) to conserve water and reduce weeds.

How to Grow

  • Keep weeds under control during the growing season. Weeds compete with plants for water, space and nutrients, so control them by either cultivating often or use a mulch to prevent their germination.
  • Mulches also help retain soil moisture and maintain even soil temperatures. For perennials, an organic mulch of aged bark or shredded leaves lends a natural look to the bed and will improve the soil as it breaks down in time. Always keep mulches off a plant’s stems to prevent possible rot.
  • Careful watering is essential in getting perennials off to a good start. Water thoroughly at least once a week to help new roots grow down deeply. Soil should be damp at about 1 inch below the soil surface. You can check this by sticking your finger in the soil. Water early in the morning to give all leaves enough time to dry. One inch of rain or watering per week is recommended for most perennial plants. You can check to see if you need to add water by using a rain gauge.
  • Until plants become established, some protection from extreme winds and direct, hot sunlight may be necessary. Good air movement is also important.
  • After new growth appears, a light fertilizer may be applied. Keep granular fertilizers away from the plant crown and foliage to avoid burn injury. Use low rates of a slow release fertilizer, as higher rates may encourage root rots.
  • “Deadhead”, remove spent flower heads to encourage continuous flowering and prevent seed development.
  • Remove and discard foliage after a hard frost in fall.
  • In colder regions, apply another layer of mulch (1-2 inches) after the ground freezes in fall. Evergreen boughs (from Christmas trees) provide additional protection. Remove this mulch in the spring.
  • Divide perennials when plants become overcrowded, bloom size begins to diminish or plants lose their vigor. Divide echinacea every 3-4 years. Divide in spring or fall. When plants are dormant in spring or fall, dig clumps from the ground and with a sharp knife or spade, cut into good sized divisions, each with several growing eyes and plenty of roots. Remove any dead or unhealthy plant parts and cut back stems. Replant one division where the plant was originally and plant the extra divisions elsewhere in your garden or give them away to gardening friends. Plant the divisions immediately, or as soon as possible, and water well.

Growing Tips

  • Many gardeners do not cut back perennial flower seed heads in the fall, but wait until early spring before the new foliage appears. This provides food for wildlife over the winter.
  • Cut flowers when blooms open. Cones may also be cut for dried arrangements.
  • Echinacea is a terrific plant for the pollinator garden.

Common Disease Problems

Alternaria Leaf Spot: Small, round reddish brown spots with white to gray centers form on the upper surface of the leaves and along the midrib. The lesions may encircle the stems and cause wilt. This disease is worse in warm, wet or very humid weather. Burpee Recommends: Avoid getting water on the foliage. Remove infected plant parts and do not work around wet plants. Provide plenty of air circulation. Contact your Cooperative Extension Service for fungicide recommendations.

Aster Yellows: Plants are stunted, develop witch’s brooms (excessive growth), petals turn green and become deformed. This virus-like condition is caused is spread by leaf hoppers. Burpee Recommends: Remove infected plants and control leaf hoppers. Remove weeds in the area.

Botrytis: This fungus causes a grey mold on flowers, leaves, stems and buds. It thrives in cool wet weather conditions. Burpee Recommends: Remove affected plant parts, avoid watering at night and getting water on the plant when watering, make sure plants have good air circulation. Contact your Cooperative Extension Service for fungicide recommendations.

Powdery Mildew: This fungus disease occurs on the top of the leaves in humid weather conditions. The leaves appear to have a whitish or greyish surface and may curl. Burpee Recommends: Avoid powdery mildew by providing good air circulation for the plants by good spacing and pruning. Contact your Cooperative Extension Service for fungicide recommendations.

Sclerotinia Crown Rot: Dark spots appear on lower stems and roots, plants wilt and rot. A white fungus with dark structures appear on the dead plant tissue. Burpee Recommends: Remove affected plants. Make sure there is good drainage.

Common Pest and Cultural Problems

Aphids: Greenish, red, black or peach colored sucking insects can spread disease as they feed on the undersides of leaves. They leave a sticky residue on foliage that attracts ants. Burpee Recommends: Introduce or attract natural predators into your garden such as lady beetles and wasps who feed on aphids. You can also wash them off with a strong spray, or use an insecticidal soap.

Eriophyld Mites: Mites live in the flower buds and cause distortion in the flowers. Burpee Recommends: Cut back the plants in fall and remove all plant debris where the mites overwinter.

Leafhoppers: Leafhoppers cause injury to leaves and stunt growth. They also spread disease. Burpee Recommends: Remove plant debris. Use insecticidal soaps. Consult your Cooperative Extension Service for other insecticide recommendations.

Japanese Beetles: Burpee Recommends: Hand pick early in the morning into a bucket of soapy water.

Plants die over the winter in recommended zones: Wet soils with poor drainage in winter can kill plants. Burpee Recommends: Make sure plants are in a well-drained soil. For container grown plants, add one zone colder than your zone when selecting varieties, and keep containers in a protected area outside, mulch heavily.

FAQ

Does echinacea seed need a cold treatment to germinate? No, we do not recommend a cold treatment for echinacea.

Can I make the herbal echinacea from the plants I received from Burpee? No, we do not recommend our varieties to process into the herbal echinacea.

What are the best ways to use echinacea in my garden? Echinacea is a great plant for mass landscaping, to attract pollinators to the garden, in containers, for cutting and drying the seed heads, for fragrance, in the perennial border. It is a great plant for beginners.

Why didn't my echinacea overwinter? Echinacea has a tendency to rot in poorly drained soils.

Will echinacea bloom the first year from seed? Certain varieties will germinate the first year from seed, including ‘PowWow Wild Berr’y and ‘Warm Summer’ Mix. In general as a perennial, they will bloom the second year from seed.

May 21, 2021