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Jane's Garden 8/3/14: Echinacea, or purple coneflower, an unpicky perennial

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Gardeners like perennial plants that will last for many years in the garden, have a long bloom season and grow well without much maintenance. Purple coneflower is one of nine species of perennial Echinacea native to the United States which occur naturally nowhere else in the world. It is readily available at retail garden centers. Coneflowers are frost-hardy, as they go dormant and lose their leaves in winter. However, they cannot survive the summer heat south of Central Florida’s heat zone 10.

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Purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, thrives in full sun further north in its normal cold zones 7 to 10. In Central Florida’s cold zones 8b (basically north of the Withalacoochee River) and Zone 9a (south of it), plant Echinacea in part afternoon shade under a high tree canopy. Citrus, Levy and Marion counties are within Echinacea’s preferred cold zone.

Understanding the plant’s needs and then preparing a suitable spot in the garden is important before trying to grow any plant outside its natural habitat. High, filtered shade will help prevent sun scorch and leaf wilt on scorching afternoons and keep the soil a little cooler. Purple coneflower prefers humus-rich but well-drained soil. In sandy soils it may be necessary to add organic, vegetable, finely milled mulch or finished compost to the planting bed.

Coneflowers prefer calcareous conditions — slightly alkaline and containing lime. Years ago, coneflowers were planted in the parking lot island at Dunnellon Public Library. Apart from annual mulching with pine needles, these plants have had minimal care or maintenance. Part of their thriving success is due to the base limerock beneath the garden soil. The shade under the mature trees keeps the coneflowers cooler all summer.

The best feature of Echinacea is its showy flowers from June to October. Deadheading — snipping off spent flower heads — encourages more flowering while keeping the garden tidy. In the composite or Aster family, coneflowers have purple, petal-like ray flowers surrounding a raised center disk of brownish-purple disk flowers. Flowers are up to 4 inches wide atop 2- to 3-foot-tall stems. Purple coneflower produces nectar and pollen for many bees and butterflies, including Florida’s state butterfly, the pollen-gathering zebra longwing.

There are a few, sparse, alternate leaves on the flower stalks. Most of the leaves are clustered in a basal rosette close to the ground. Leaves are 3 to 6 inches long and lance-shaped with toothed edges. The dark green leaves are coarse in texture. Seeds are tiny achenes borne in the disk flowers. Finches wintering locally find Echinacea seeds irresistible.

Seeds need at least a month in continuously cold conditions below 40 degrees to stratify in winter before they can sprout after frost is over in spring. In mild Central Florida, coneflower’s seeds rarely sprout. Propagation here could be by division while dormant in winter. Most gardeners buy seed-grown plants from more northern growers. Packaged Echinacea seeds may be already moist-stratified and ready to sprout.

Echinacea makes a good addition to any low-maintenance perennial garden. 

Jane Weber is a professional gardener and consultant. Semi-retired, she grows thousands of native plants. Visitors are welcome to her Dunnellon, Marion County, garden. For an appointment, call 352-249-6899 or contact JWeber12385@gmail.com.