Thursday, May 3, 2018

Echinaceas: A Little Over the Top

Yes, it was an  exciting day in the annals of catalogue plant porn when the Big Sky Echinaceas came out.  Oh, those soft yellows and oranges, and what a breakthrough for lovers of the stalwart pinky purple Coneflower, who were longing to spice things up in their horticultural bedrooms.  Then we brought these newcomers breathlessly to our gardens and found out very quickly that they didn’t last.  Not here in the north, anyway.  Now everybody and their plant snipping brother is producing new and wilder shades in every flowering form and configuration possible.  Double Deckers, pom poms with short petals, pom poms with long petals,  greens, screaming reds, an impossible array of tropical looking orange and yellow shades with tropical sounding names like Tiki Torch, Aloha, Leilani, Pina Colada and Hot papaya, and, of course, dwarf container sized plants with cutsy names too (just what a prairie plant was meant for, right?).  They have, and so have we all its seems, become intoxicated with the equatorial fever of our garish new Coneflowers.  They would surely look at home in the tropics.

The problem is not just a matter of their shaggy tropical looks (in fact the absence of actual cones on many of these so-called Coneflowers), but of the persistent issue of garden toughness.  Even the rugged sounding Cheyenne Spirit series (available from seed as well as plants) have proven to be weak growers and better used as annual fillers than reliably hardy garden plants. They have certainly lost some of their prairie toughness along the way.  I have tried both nursery bought plants and seed grown Cheyenne Spirit, not to mention the Big Skys.  Most disappeared or never developed into full grown plants, and few have persisted into their 3rd year in the garden.  This year I’m going to be trying out a compact but thankfully not miniature new orange Coneflower called Adobe Orange.  Unlike the Big Sky’s developed in the Southeastern US, these have been trialed in Michigan and are rated Zone 4 hardy.  We shall see. (Update: We shall not see.  Walters Gardens reports crop failure in 2018). The good thing about these (in theory, see above) is that they maintain an old-fashioned Echinacea look.  They have a prominent cone and some petals that point downward (God forbid we grow anything so primitive and unstylish in our gardens these days).

Which brings me to a rant about the series of mop-head coneless Coneflowers that look like little more than bad dye jobs on top of bad hair days.  The ones with the mops and the long widely spaced petals look like a sad gappy daisy with a pom pom Zinnia or Mum dropped on top of it.  Please just grow Zinnias or Mums.  They still come in a wider range of colors and will probably last just as long in your garden without fading. 

There’s always an exception.  I have seen one very strong group of the Double Decker Echinaceas returning in a local garden, but then wouldn’t you know that the very ugliest and earliest purveyor of bad hair is the only one that seems to survive here.  It of course is in the traditional pink.

The fact remains, while our nurseries are full of these bold new Coneflowers our gardens are not, which is one of the best proofs that these plants are little more than an impulse buying scam designed to part you with your hard earned money. Plant porn indeed since in real life they are never as good as in the glossy pictures.  And have you noticed how many of the oranges fade to an anemic, grubby pink after about a week.  The greens turn pink and the oranges turn pink and the reds fade like dollar store hummingbird feeders after one season in the sun.

Here’s an idea.  You’d think having taken pink and yellow and white (the original Echinacea colors) and bred them into such a wide array of bold reds and oranges and so many nuanced pastels, that they’d be able to get the original pinky/purple Echinacea to a true purple.  That is what I am waiting for.  That is the evolution that would make the most spectacular of coneflowers, because it would preserve that pleasurable shock of contrast between the pink and orange that made Echinacea purpurea so irresistible in the first place, but turn it into a delicious complimentary color combination.

On our present course, we may lose our appreciation for what made the Coneflower so unique--it’s internal color contrast and, increasingly, the cones themselves for which these plants are known.