Echinacea is no longer itself – The New York Times

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Even for someone who is intimately familiar with the genus Echinacea, many of the latest Echinacea have a double take. Some are almost unrecognizable; others represent a dramatic divergence from those nature made.

These are the savages that Kelly Kindscher, ethnobotanist and professor of environmental studies at the University of Kansas, has made the central theme of a career focused on prairie plant communities.

“It is truly an iconic American genus,” said Dr Kindscher of Echinacea, which many taxonomists count as comprising seven naturally occurring species, although some recognize as many as 10. Only one, Echinacea angustifolia – l westernmost species he calls “the prairie’s most important medicinal plant,” used for hundreds of years by Native Americans – is found outside the continental United States, in a small part of the plains Canadian.


Some of the newer cultivars are ornamental, agrees Dr Kindscher, with their unexpected sunset colors or fluffy double flowers. He understands: he may be a senior Kansas Biological Survey scientist, but he’s also an avid gardener himself.

But you must be wondering what the pollinators who evolved alongside the pure native coneflowers – “hardy prairie plants adapted to life among grasses,” as Dr Kindscher described them – think of these surprisingly different versions.

What are the insects doing with coneflowers whose prominent cones of tiny fertile disc florets – an easy landing platform for their pollen-collecting visits – have been nearly obscured by what looks like pom poms? In these double flowers, derived from a chance mutation first seen in a field of cut flowers in the Netherlands in 1997, the reproductive structure has been replaced by something resembling a petal. And so the ecological services that the flower can offer are reduced, with less pollen, less nectar and generally fewer seeds.

The cone that forms the center of each flower, and is the prefix for the common name of plants, was also there for another reason, Dr Kindscher said. The thorny structure was intended to deter grazing predators. (The Latin name Echinacea, which derives from the same Greek word for hedgehog and sea urchin, alludes to this function.)

Even the familiar Echinacea that you see growing in nursery pots – E. basic purpurea, or purple coneflower – is no longer quite itself. It has undergone more subtle changes than those spectacular double flowers, but store-bought purpurea has larger petals than the natural version, a trend that began in the 1960s when a German breeder began making selections in favor of this trait. In the wild form, what we think of as the petals (technically the combs) are narrower and longer.

So, before you shop, you have a decision to make: are you planting a pollinator garden or just want a summer bloom for visual consumption?

The Mt. Cuba Center, Delaware’s native plant garden and research center, has some tips before you go crazy, what a recent report from the organization described as “a compromise between style and substance.” . Choose well, and you can have both.

Mount Cuba completed a second multi-year echinacea study in 2020, comparing the many species and cultivars – a total of 75 coneflowers, said Sam Hoadley, the director of the trial garden who led the research.

From 2007 to 2009, the center had studied 48 types of echinacea. But with their growing popularity and the profusion of new cultivars – sometimes called nativars, for native plant cultivars – it seemed time to revisit them, he said. And the latest essay was designed to include a feature that hadn’t been on the radar the first time around: a pollinator survey, or a tally of insect visits by a team of citizen scientists, with close attention. brought to the difference between single and double flowers and their appeal to bees, wasps and butterflies.

Some of the newer Echinacea varieties are selections, meaning that a seedling population has been observed and the best of the lot have been put forward. Others are hybrids resulting from the intentional crossing of one species with another. This is something echinacea plants are also happy to do on their own, apparently.

“I think if we had grown all the seedlings that we eliminated from our trials, we would have had a whole kaleidoscope of plants,” Hoadley said.

“It’s a promiscuous species,” said Dr. Kindscher, “and we even see hybrids in the wild.”

So far, he hasn’t seen hybridization between cultivars and wild plants, but concern has been raised, and researchers are watching.

A sneak peek for gardeners who see an unusual looking plant emerging in or near a place where it used to be grown: “When people say, ‘My echinacea has come back,’ Mr Hoadley said, ‘this what happened is that the seedlings sprouted next to a parent. It is not a reversion.

One species, in particular, has proven to be irresistible to breeders, inviting the development of new colored coneflowers, from the 1990s: the canary yellow Echinacea paradoxa, with a native range centered in the Ozarks.

The epithet “paradoxa” is revealing, because this echinacea is a paradox in a genus whose palette is generally limited to purples and pinks. With the yellow added to the gene pool, red and orange coneflowers became possible.

Not all coneflowers are as easy to grow or as adaptable as E. purpurea, a plant native to the woodlands of the eastern United States. Its leaves are wider than those of other species, revealing its original habitat, indicating that it has enough leaf area to do the job of photosynthesis, even in low light conditions.

It is therefore not surprising that the selections and cultivars which were at least partially derived from E. purpurea generally obtained the best results in the Mount Cuba trials. Many of this echinacea’s cousins ​​are taproot, designed to grow in dry, thin soil for moisture and penetrate crevices in fractured rock. THE. Taproot angustifolia, for example, “likes the climate of the Great Plains and tends to disappear in Eastern and English gardens,” said Dr Kindscher. But E. purpurea has fibrous roots which are more tolerant even when transplanted.

“A lot of the best performing cultivars are from purpurea,” said Hoadley, “and some of the best are those created by selections – without much human influence. “

What struck Mr Hoadley most: Some of the stars of the 2007-2009 lawsuit remained the biggest hits more than a decade later.

The traditional colored Pica Bella, a compact strain with prominent orange cones that attract pollinators, was “our absolute best performer,” he said. In the quest to patent new traits and varieties, it seems, excellent older plants like this are sometimes left behind.

“Ask your nursery,” Mr. Hoadley said. “I hope that consumer demand will help bring it back to a larger supply.” (Specialized mail order providers like Digging Dog Nursery and Broken Arrow Nursery offer it in certain seasons.)

The white-flowered fragrant angel, also a purpurea, averaged by far the most butterfly visits of any plants in the trial, and was also a hit with bees and wasps. Butterflies typically make up maybe 5 percent of an echinacea insect visit, but this one is rated at 14 percent.

Another popular white variety was Snow Cone, a compact plant with the species Echinacea tennesseensis in its parentage.

Among the top performing warm-colored cultivars were Santa Fe Coral, Postman, and the Kismet series Intense Orange offering – much more vigorous than early introductions in this color range, which were often found to be short lived.

Echinacea pallida would have liked drier, less rich soil than that offered by the trial garden, Hoadley acknowledged, but its dramatically long drooping petals caught his eye.

Dr Kindscher also asked why he was not more cultured. “I don’t know what the breeders are working on, but an orange or red pallida nativar with long drooping petals sounds like a good one,” he said.

And unsurprisingly, no double-flowered form that has been tested has even received an honorable mention.

It was the medicinal power of echinacea, learned from Native Americans, that prompted European settlers to take an interest in the plant. Each tribe had its own word for echinacea, and the translations also differed, writes Dr. Kindscher in his 2016 book, “Echinacea: Herbal Medicine With a Wild History.”

Translations ranged from “medicine numbs you” (Kiowa Apache) to “cold medicine” (Hidatsa) and “something used to spill something” (Lakota).

The first plants were returned to England at the end of the 17th century. Gradually, echinacea made their way into both physical and ornamental gardens, marking the ancient roots of their rapidly evolving history in modern horticulture.

The same bioactive compounds that made the E. angustifolia species the most widely used medicinal plant of the Plains tribes, Dr Kindscher said, served as protection against insects. Like the thorny cone, their chemistry is a defense against predation.

And speaking of that thorny cone: it’s not just Dr. Kindscher, Mr. Hoadley and the pollinators who are in favor of keeping it intact and hedgehog-like. American goldfinches, who love a good meal of echinacea seeds, strongly agree.


Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A way of gardening, and a book of the same name.

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