It's simply love at first sight. Pendulous purple petals surrounding an orange beehive of a cone—one look at coneflowers and you'll be hooked on these Southern natives. They love heat and humidity and entice birds, bees, and butterflies. Try coneflowers in cool purple, red, white, and even green, or warmer yellow, orange, coral, salmon, and pink. Blooms can be single or double.
Brothers Bobby and Richard Saul of ItSaul Plants in Alpharetta, Georgia, developed some of the first new colors of coneflowers by crossing purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) with yellow coneflower (E. paradoxa). The Sauls, creators of the Big Sky series, and other breeders continue to develop new ones, and there are a bunch of hybrids in many sizes and colors. Some are even fragrant.
Bobby says coneflowers will bloom best in full sun but can handle a little afternoon shade. They are tolerant of just about any soil type as long as it is well drained. Coneflowers are happiest in fertile, slightly moist soil but hate wet feet. To improve drainage in clay soil, amend with organic matter such as peat or chopped leaves. Once established, coneflowers can become quite drought tolerant, but you should water new plants regularly the first season to help them settle in. Mulch them lightly to conserve moisture.
Coneflowers work anywhere, but they're ideal for cottage, butterfly, and wildflower gardens as well as perennial borders and raised beds. They form clumps, so plant a single one as an accent or try several of the same selection en masse for a big show of color. You can also combine them with ornamental grasses (such as variegated maiden grass), summer phlox, salvias, red-hot pokers (such as the Echo series), black-eyed Susans, porterweed, and verbenas. Coneflowers make great cut flowers, lasting 10 days or longer, and you can extend their bloom time by cutting them or deadheading them.
Hummingbirds and butterflies can't resist the nectar of the blooms. The pollen lures bees, who will also help pollinate your vegetables. As seeds ripen in the fall, goldfinches will feed on the cones.
So take a look at coneflowers this summer. You'll fall in love.
Look for a variety of colorful coneflowers at your local nursery, or order online from Plant Delights Nursery (plantdelights.com), Sunlight Gardens (sunlightgardens.com), and Niche Gardens (nichegardens.com).