Monday, March 7, 2011

A Year in the Life - Echinacea 'Prairie Splendor'

Is there any flower more evocative of the American prairie than the Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)? I grew this indispensable plant back when I lived in Nebraska and, to be honest, have never seen it grow as well as it does there. This plant was made for those conditions - long, cold, brutal winters and blazingly hot, humid summers. Here, in the PNW, they are certainly happy enough, but never seem as vigorous as they did back home...perhaps this is a plant that needs a little adversity to really do its best.

My Echinacea of choice for the past few years has been 'Magnus', which is about as close to the species as you can get (barring growing some from seed). However, my garden these days is on a slope...and 4' flowers that are 2' up the slope results in me looking at knobby Echinacea knees and wondering what the flowers look like from above :-(

Enter 'Prairie Splendor', a shorter variety of Echinacea that retains is traditional color and form, albeit in a shorter package...topping out around 2'. I've always wondered why anyone would want a dwarf variety of anything...but now I understand!

In any case, they typically emerge the same time as 'Magnus', in later March or early April. They are unmistakable with their purplish-tinted new foliage.

Emerging echinacea spring

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'Prairie Splendor's claim to fame, as it were, is that it is not only one of the earliest Echincea to bloom, but it supposedly blooms in it's first year from sown seed. I've never grown it from seed, so can't attest to that claim, however it is definitely the first of my coneflowers to bloom, starting a good 2 weeks or so earlier than both 'Magus' and 'White Swan'.

The first blooms appear toward the end of June or the first part of July, the photo to the left is from July 12, it's bloom was a little delayed last year due to an unusually wet, cool spring. I particularly like this vignette, where 'Prairie Splendor' is growing in the middle of a patch of several Agastache 'Golden Jubilee'. I love the contrast in color, form and texture. The best part is that this combination lasts for months and months.

Even when the first flush of the Agastache flowers have faded and been cut down, the golden, serrated foliage is a constant foil to the glowing pink flowers of 'Prairie Splendour'. The fact that this Echinacea can grow and flourish while practically engulfed by the neighboring Agastache is proof of its durability and tenacity.
I think one of the reasons I adore Echinacea so much is that they were the plant that opened my eyes to atypical color combinations in gardening. I've always been fond of the cooler colors, blues and purples...and the impressionistic pairings of these with silvers, white and pinks.

I shunned oranges, reds, and yellows...what place did they have in my calm, cooling gardens. They were rabble and troublemakers, the lot of them. Then, one day I noticed a patch of flowers growing wild in our ditch. Yup, Echinacea purpurea, totally wild, totally glorious. The warm, pink petals radiating from that luminous, spiky orange cone. I was in love. I dug it up (evil, I know, but hey, I was a kid) and took it back to my garden.

Ever since then, I've reveled in unexpected, even jarring, patches of color in the garden. I've also realized I have a habit of pairing orange and pink repeatedly, and often, unintentionally. Take the vignette to the right...I do love how the pink and orange of the Echinacea echoes the pink and orange of 2 different Agastache in the distance (Agastache rupestris and Agastache 'Tutti Frutti')...a completely unplanned, serendipitous combination.

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'Prairie Splendor' works well with everything, blues and deeper purples seem to enhance it's warm pinks while warmer colors bring out the luminescent orange of the cone. I honestly can't imagine a garden without harmonizes with everything and gives the garden a welcoming, cottagey feel. Perhaps it's the somewhat un-subtle color combination, perhaps it's the honesty simplicity of its form...totally without pretension. No one should ever feel intimidated by Echinacea!
Ironically, as is the case with far too many North American natives, it was the European breeders who first seemed to see its potential. For the past several years we've been inundated with a seemingly endless stream of new varieties...many of which, in my humble opinion, are of dubious merit. Double flowers, a rainbow of colors, even plants with "stacked" blooms. I'm convinced the next string of introductions will somehow do away with foliage altogether...leaving us with merely blooms on stalks.

As for me, give the the species, the good old, tried-and-true, pink flower with reflexing petals. I far prefer my flowers to look like flowers, not pompoms of frilly ridiculous petals that have no resemblance to anything found in nature. Ok, rant over!

As the flowers of 'Prairie Splendor' age, they change color, fading to a light beigey-pink...something I don't see in my other Echincea, whose blooms just sort of fade away. Insects of all types flock to Echinacea, bees, butterflies and all manner of insects adore them. They are also a favorite perch of many spiders, who know that they won't have to wait long for a pollinator on an Echinacea.

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The only problem I've EVER encountered with my Echinacea is a disease called Aster Yellows. It's caused by a phytoplasma (a small bacteria-like organism), which is in turn transmitted by Aster Leafhoppers as they feed on plants' sap. The disease has bizarre and erratic the double flower head to the left. In any case, there is no cure...and if you suspect a plant in your garden is infected, pull it up and dispose of it...don't compost it.

Echinacea seedhead autumn

Echinacea Seed Head Winter
In any case, as fall approaches, 'Prairie Splendour' will likely continue to bloom until frost, albeit at a slower pace and with far fewer flowers. I like to stop deadheading around the beginning of October so that i can enjoy a few of the dark seedheads during autumn and winter. If your house isn't surrounded by roving bands of ravenous cats (like mine is) birds will relish the seeds throughout winter...and you may even get a few self-sown seedlings the next spring...although I doubt many of the hybrids will come true from seed.

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So there you have it...Echinacea 'Prairie Splendor'. It's a smaller, long-blooming new hybrid of the rugged species. If you want that classic form and color, but don't have the space, give this one a won't be disappointed. How about all of you out you have/lust after any particular Echinacea?


  1. Great pictures of your Echinacea 'Prairie Splendor'! I do lust after a couple of different ones, but like you I'm not a big fan of all the strange colors and weird flower forms they've introduced. I'm trying to find seeds for 'Pow Wow Wild Berry' at the stores and nurseries. I know I can buy it online at lots of places, but I've already bought all my seeds for this year, and don't want to pay shipping for one or two packets. I also like 'After Midnight', which has dark stalks.

    I really like your picture of it with the grass seedheads. That's a good companion for it too, I think I'll try that.

  2. Love your pictures as always but that shot with the pink and orange and softness of 'Karley Rose' with the spikiness of the coneflower really pops. You could probably sell a lot of expensive prints of that one.

    I have little luck with Coneflowers on my own property, having killed 'Sundown' twice and 'After Midnight' once but I planted a trio of 'Magnus' somewhere a little bit sunnier where it has just done so well.

    We carried 'Pow Wow Wild Berry' at the end of last year but never saw it in bloom, but it does sound interesting as well.

  3. great post and great photos Scott. I always learn something new here, especially your "Year in the Life" posts. I love the shot of the coneflower coming up amongst all the agastache.

    I've heard that some of the newer varieties are hybridized with a less hardy relative, so they need to be planted before August to get fully established in our Zone 8 gardens. Winter drainage can be a problem too, I had a few 'Mac n' Cheese' and 'Tomato Soup' plants not come back after last winter in a spot with poor drainage.

  4. Coneflowers grew wild in South Dakota, where I grew up, (perhaps they grew wild for you in Nebraska?) As young girls we'd ride our horses through fields of them. I have tried for 10 years to talk coneflowers into being that happy in my garden. So far, not much luck. :) Great post.

  5. I really appreciate this post, Scott! You have given voice to my incoherent feelings about pink and orange - it's a dynamic and very pleasing combo, and I thank you for pointing it out. I have been tempted to grow echinacea, as I like simple flat flowers when I'm going to have flowers at all - it's great to have a cultivar recommendation from someone who has clearly known and enjoyed the species for so long!

  6. I love coneflowers, but they do not grow well for me. I think 'Prairie Splendor' growing in the middle of a patch of several Agastache 'Golden Jubilee' is just perfect.

    I adore pink/orange flower combos. I think the contrast of colors is so much more fun than the usual dull (boring) combos. Although I will probably change my opinion in the next few years. I seem to change my color scheme every 7 years or so.

  7. I used to grow Magnus, in my former garden, but even there, with good drainage, they tended to be short-lived. Do yours last over the years?

  8. This looks so nice with the Agastache! Now i kind of want to work that combo into my yard... I'll have to see if I can find this one at the local garden center.

  9. I can't wait to see Echinacea in bloom! Your pictures of 'Prairie Splendor' are so pretty, love the combinations. Mine always does best in the hot and dry driveway bed where it's practically ignored.

  10. Your rant wasn't too bad. I agree, but I would have used a few more exclamation marks! :-)
    Love the mix of Echinacea and the Agastache.
    I had Aster Yellows on some of mine when we lived in VA. The recommended remedy is to pull the infected plants.

  11. I don't feel any garden is complete without some Echinacea..I love your cottage style garden.

  12. Scott, in the past I've been about as fond of echinacea as I have been of unattended St. John's wort. But thanks to you I have seen the light...yes full public disclosure -- I'm loving this echinacea, and will work to plant and right this wrong in my garden. Merci oh wise plantsman.

  13. I am not sure which Echinacea I have, the species or Magnus, but I love it. It is one of only a handful of perennials that easily re-seed without any help from me, and they are very long lived. The tend to do better next to the sidewalk where I assume it is a little hotter and perhaps drier. I fell in lust with all those peachy, melons and salmons from the plethora of new varieties that have come out. Every single one I planted died, but the old variety shines on.

  14. An eloquent tribute to the humble coneflower. I love them too. Hey, anyone with a purple coneflower in their blog header is a kindred spirit.

  15. I have one of these amongst a group of Merlot Coneflowers, and sure enough they were the first ones to let me know that they had survived the winter and their little purple green leaves are on the move!

    Coneflowers are a definite favorite of mine. In humid hot SC they are thriving, so I can't even imagine what they must look like in their more traditional settings.

  16. Alison: Thanks! Grasses make natural partners with Echinacea...and I'm planning on adding even more this year. As many grasses as I have, it's not enough, I've realized in my garden (which is too small for shrubs) grasses are the answer for year-long structure.

    AllAndrewsPlants: Thanks! I think the newer hybrids just aren't as tough as the older ones...and even then, they can be tempermental if they are subject to winter wet...keep trying!

    Ryan Miller: Thanks...I never know if I'm saying anything interesting or just rambling sometimes! I think you are right, I think they crossed the straight species with E. paradoxa (or pallida maybe?) which resulted in less hardy plants...but a greater range in their palette. I think you are spot-on about winter drainage...the problems I have here in PDX seem mostly due to spots that aren't as free-draining as others.

    Kate: They did indeed grow wild in NE pretty in a field of grasses!

    MulchMaid: Thanks! I do try to make a few good points in my random, chain-of-consiousness musings now and then ;-) I hope you do grow some, they are carefree and lovely!

    Zoey: Hahaha...I'm the same way, my tastes and opinions are pretty fluid, one day I hate something with a passion, the next day I'm fanatically collecting them...go figure!

    James Golden: They seem to be the longest-lived I've grown...but winter wet (and Aster Yellows) seem to plague me...but I almost always get a few seedlings to replace what's lost...or I pick up a replacement plant...I always buy the smallest plants I can, so can get a 'Magnus' seedling for about $2 :-)

    Tom: Good luck...I guiltily found my at Home Depot (don't hate me...I can't resists a good sale)!

    Catherine: Totally...I think they thrive on heat...unlike me!

    Janet: I's so hard to pull them out...I always wait until I see at least 2 signs, but then it's out they come :-(

    Darla: I agree can you not love them!

    Tom: hahaha...a job here is done :-)

    Les: I love them too...and especially because they reseed...I'm totally old-school and there's no price I like better than "FREE"!

    Pam: Thanks! You're totally taking me back to my Anne of Green Gable days :-)

    Jess: I bet the love it down there...they do seem to thrive in heat that makes me faint!

  17. I grow the species and love that is seeds itself about. I have just started trying the 'alba' version, and hope this year it will take off. Your photos are wonderful and the plant combinations work really well.

  18. I could't imagine my garden without some of these easy perennials. :)

  19. i got as Ooops this link is broken message when I tried to post a comment.Bummer.

  20. One of my favorite experiences as a kid gardener was to sow a packet of species seed. The variablity of plant size, height, flower color and form was outstanding.

    BTW,this is the most beautiful posting I have ever seen.