New Colors for Coneflowers

Prepare the neighbors for some serious garden fireworks.
Ellen Ruoff Riley

Flower lovers, take note: A new day dawns in the world of color. Meet the Big Sky Series of coneflowers (Echinacea sp.), whose dazzling blooms mirror the loveliest shades of a summer day. From pale golden 'Sunrise’ to vibrant 'Sundown'; rich, rosy 'Twilight'; and radiant 'Harvest Moon,' these plants offer a unique twist on a garden staple.

"Purple coneflowers have been one of the top-10 selling perennials for years," says Bobby Saul, an owner of ItSaul Plants in Atlanta. "We started breeding new selections several years ago, and the results are these shades and the beginning of a new era for this favorite flower."

Redefine your sunny garden's palette with these selections. Choose one color (if you can), and stick with it. Or combine them all for shades that play beautifully together. If you have the classic purple, add some of the new ones to the mix.

The romance of these coneflowers goes beyond color. "As we developed the new hues, we also discovered fragrance the purple selections only hint at," Bobby says. It becomes most prominent in late afternoon, when flowers warmed by the sun give the air a sweet, unexpected scent.

These new coneflowers also cut like a charm. Snip a few stems as they open, and they'll last in a vase for at least 10 days. The colors combine beautifully with other garden flowers and herbs for stunning mixed-bouquet potential. Few summer blooms produce the color range these selections possess.

Meet the Parents
Like everything else in nature, new flowers have parents. A skillful breeder incorporates the best characteristics of both, producing a fresh selection that is consistently dependable. The Big Sky Series began with purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and yellow coneflower (E. paradoxa). The purple coneflower adds structure (petals slightly overlapping and sturdy stems), while the yellow coneflower brings a warm hue to the series. The result is offspring with exciting flower colors that will give your border a fresh look for summer.

Happy and Healthy
Big Sky coneflowers grow enthusiastically like their familiar parent, the purple coneflower. Here are Bobby's recommendations for success.

  • Well-drained soil: This is a must for long-lived plants; many times they will fail due to excessive moisture in the soil.
  • Sunlight: Full sun (at least four hours) is best to ensure strong plants and sturdy flowers.
  • Fertilize: Don't go overboard. Feed with an all-purpose granular food (such as 14-14-14) in the spring and once again in midsummer.
  • Maintenance: Once blooms fade, deadhead them at the bases of the stems. New buds will follow. Tall flowers that aren't in full sun may need stakes for support.

New Arrivals
You can find the Big Sky Series selections we mentioned at garden centers and nurseries. They cost $8 to $10 a pot.

Be on the lookout for two new color selections that will appear in the market this year.

  • 'Summer Sky': This bicolored coneflower produces pastel salmon petals and a magenta halo surrounding the cone.
  • 'After Midnight': Dark purple-magenta petals surround a black-cherry cone; black stems support the blooms.

"New Colors for Coneflowers" is from the July 2007 issue of Southern Living.