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Plant Focus: Coneflowers

Generally the common name of 'Coneflower' is reserved for echinacea, due to the fact that echinacea have a prominent, hard, central cone. However, particularly if you are browsing the internet, you will also see 'coneflower' appearing next to heleniums and rudbeckia (also sometimes referred to as 'black-eyed susan') simply because these flowers also have a distinctive central boss to them. All three come from the aster family (Asteraceae), have a daisy-like flower and tend to grow in similar conditions, so we'll cover all three here.

Echinacea, heleniums and rudbeckia are all great summer performers that look well planted in drifts through a mixed border. They are particularly suited to growing amongst grasses in a prairie style planting scheme and of course they look wonderful when grown together with hundreds of varieties to choose from across the three genera. This is helped by the fact that they generally all flower around the same time, from around mid/late summer into early autumn, come in a variety of colours, from white to vibrant oranges, reds and pinks and can grow to numerous heights, so there's something for every garden and even for container growing. 

If you're looking to attract wildlife to your garden, all varieties of echinacea, helenium and rudbeckia are attractive to a range of pollinators. If you are looking to bring some of that summer colour indoors, most make a great cut-flower too, so these really are versatile plants.

Echinacea - Image by Manfred Richter from Pixabay

Where and How to grow:

All varieties of echinacea, helenium and rudbeckia require similar growing conditions and the general rule across all three is that they will tolerate most soil types in terms of ph (acid, alkaline or neutral) and need some moisture within a well-drained soil. All three will also generally be happy in dappled or part shade but will perform much better in full sun. Having said that, it is always recommended that you read the preferred conditions for a particular variety as there will be subtle differences that may make a variety more suitable to your particular garden. A few varieties of rudbeckia for instance, will tolerate winter wet, whereas most won't; some perform better in shade than others. Taller varieties may need staking and of course the expected height of the plants will make a difference in terms of where to position them in your border. Echinacea, for example, has varieties that can grow up to 1m and are best towards the back of a border, with others only reaching 45 cm. It is this variety of sizes, along with the selection of colours that can make for great fun, in terms of planning a mixed bed with a variety of these plants, and can yield some beautiful results.

In terms of the 'How' to grow - most annual varieties are perhaps best grown from seed indoors in late winter or early spring and once they are sizable enough to plant out they'll need hardening off, once any fear of frosts has passed, usually around late May or the beginning of June. You may even pick up the odd plug pack of annuals in the spring but most varieties that we sell are perennial varieties that will provide you with summer colour year after year. Perennial heleniums and rudbeckia are best planted in spring whilst the soil is still moist as this will help them establish quicker. If you are planting either of these two in summer, you will need to make sure they are well watered in dryer spells. Echinacea are slightly different in this respect as they tend to prefer dryer conditions and so any time in spring or summer is good. Unlike many other perennials, it is not advised that echinacea are planted in autumn or winter as this makes them prone to rot before they can fully establish.

The planting method itself is the same as for most perennials:

  • Dig a hole as deep as the pot they and a little wider
  • Add some compost or leaf-mould to the bottom of the hole just to give the plants an additional boost of organic matter. If you are planting in large groups or swathes the general rule is to dig the area over first adding about a bucket full of organic matter/compost to every meter squared.
  • Remove the plant from its pot, loosening any roots that may have become pot-bound (it's always good practice to give the pot a good watering an hour or so beforehand).
  • Position the root-ball to the centre of the hole, making sure that the ground is level with the soil level in the pot – be sure not to plant it any deeper. The roots will also benefit from a dusting of mycorrhizal fungi which will help the plants establish much quicker.
  • Once positioned, you can then start to backfill the hole, gently firmly the plant in give it a good watering.

Coneflower care:

Heleniums and rudbeckia tend to be less tolerant of dry periods than echinacea so if we do have any heat-waves or prolonged periods of dry weather, you will need to make sure these are well watered throughout. A good mulch of organic matter is recommended in the autumn as this will give them a good boost the following spring and deadhead any spent flowers. Other than that there is very little you need to do with these plants. As with most clump forming perennials, they may need lifting and dividing every 3-5 years if they become too congested but this comes with the added bonus of multiplying your stock! 

Propagation:

As mentioned above, the easiest way to propagate all perennial coneflowers is by division, allowing 3-5 years of growth between lifting your plants. You can then divide these into manageable clumps and replant as you would a newly bought plant.

Coneflower Companions:

These three genera all make great companions to each other as well as looking well amongst various grasses. Other companions that will thrive in similar growing conditions include:

  • Monarda 
    Otherwise known as 'Bee Balm' due to their attractiveness to bees, these perennials have an unusual flower that will add a different texture to a mixed med with coneflowers.
  • Heuchera 
    Also known as 'Coral Bells are predominantly grown as foliage plants and as well as prov-ding good ground-cover amongst your coneflowers, the darker leaved varieties can provide a great contrast and really make the vibrant colours of your echinacea, heleniums or rudbeckia really 'pop' in the garden
  • Eryngiums
    The steely blue of most eryngiums can add a whole new element when mixed with echinacea in particular and they are also a plant that tends to like the soil on the dryer side.
  • Salvias
    Also loving similar soil and site conditions, there's a perfect salvia companion to all type of coneflower with purple varieties like 'Caradonna' providing a real contrast with the yellow flowers of rudbeckia for instance, whilst offering a softer touch when planted amongst pink varieties of echinacea.
  • Asters
     As all three genera are from the aster family, other asteracea will always pair well with these plants, the purple daisy flowers of Aster Little Carlow for instance looking lovely planted in swathes with rudbeckia as is pictured below.  

So there you have it - three genera of plants with a huge range of varieties available that will bring vibrancy and joy to you and your sunny borders year after year with very little maintenance required. Excellent paired up with a wide variety of other perennials, why not browse our range online today. Alternatively, pop in to one of our centres in Boyle or Roscommon Town to view our full range of garden plants with staff at hand to answer any questions you might have.

Rudbeckia - Image by Peggy from Pixabay

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