THE purple coneflower is in full flow at the moment. Its large purple daisy flowers are very distinctive and stand out in a summer border. The flowers have a ring of bright pink-purple, almost cerise, petals and a darker central cone that gives the plant its common name.
The rounded cone is composed of scores of tiny fertile flowers that later turn into seeds. But before that, when the flower is open, these florets are dark blown, each one tipped with bright orange, which makes a remarkable contrast with the cerise-crimson petals, perfect for hailing passing insect pollinators.
A native of dry areas of the North American prairies, purple coneflower, or echinacea, has been grown in Europe for a couple of centuries at least. It has become very popular as a garden flower in recent years as the trend for prairie-style planting with grasses became established.
Being a genuine prairie native, the purple coneflower was an obvious candidate for these naturalistic designs. The large daisies are very nicely set off by the narrow foliage and soft seed heads of grasses. In turn, the strong purple colour of the flowers can greatly enrich a planting of prairie perennials, many of which are yellow daisies, and silvery or golden grasses.
Echinacea has long been used as a herbal medicine to ward off and reduce the effects of colds and it is known for this purpose under its correct botanical name, the name often familiar to people who have no idea that it is also a garden flower of great decorative value.
Being native to the drier prairies, the summer weather here has not always favoured it and a run of wet summers took a toll on plants growing in heavy ground. Echinacea tends to fade out in a few years if the soil conditions are not right. It likes rich, humusy soil, deep and fertile, but well-drained.
As with most flowers that become popular, the plant breeders have come up with new kinds. 'Magnus' is like the standard type but with very large flowers. 'Pink Parasol' has pale pink-purple flowers. 'White Swan' is ivory white with yellow-tipped cone. 'Sunrise' is pale yellow and 'Art's Pride' is rich orange. 'Jade' is white with green-tipped petals. 'Summer Cocktail' is salmon.
'Magic Box' is a mixture of hybrids to grow from seed and all sorts of colours can pop up. Varieties can be maintained by division or root cuttings when dormant, but the plant does not react well to root disturbance and this should be kept to a minimum.