Echinacea: Reliable Reseeders

Many of the new Echinaceas have been appearing in our local garden centers. Most of us aren’t going to be able to resist buying them to join our other coneflowers, which gives rise to the dilemma that I found myself in recently. I had waiting to be planted some seedlings from ‘White Swan’, a ‘Double Pink Delight’, a couple of Sunsets and two Sunrises. I already had in the ground Echinacea purpurea, a ‘White Swan’ and a ‘Doppelganger’. Baby plants are a bonus that every gardener loves but if plants are hybrids the babies are not going to be the same as the parent plants. Neither are the progeny of crosses of two different plants. Some of them might be beauties but mostly they tend to revert to ancestral varieties. I certainly did not want “mutts” growing up replace my named varieties yet space is limited.  I can’t space everything at non-pollinating distances when I have specific areas in which I want to put my plants.

The solution seemed to be to plant the hybrids together and forget about saving any seeded plants. To do this it becomes necessary to know the ancestry of the plant and to know whether it breeds true. This is a tall order where breeders tend to be somewhat secretive as to how they achieved a certain plant. Growers don’t care to announce that the strain is stable and you can grow it from seed thus bypassing contributing to their profits.  I set out on an adventure to find out what has gone into the making of some of the beautiful plants we call coneflower.

We all know that our common purple coneflower will reproduce itself by seed but what of the named varieties? ‘Magnus’, the Perennial Plant Associations plant of the year for 1998, apparently comes true from seed.  Ten years of selection by Magnus B. Nilsson of Sweden has stabilized the seed.  ‘Rubenstern’, sometimes said to be the best of the pink coneflowers, is a redder version of ‘Magnus’. It too comes true from seed.  Another one that can be grown from saved seed is “Robert Bloom”.  This cultivar is described as “cerise-mauve-crimson, with orange or purplish-brown centers”. ‘Prairie Splendor’ a smaller Echinacea can also be grown from seed although whether saved seed will produce this shorter more compact coneflower is less clear.

Of the white coneflowers ‘White Swan’ is definitely growable from its own seed. It was selected from a naturally occurring strain of white coneflower bred back to itself until the strain was pure. It will probably cross with the purple variety. It would best to keep it separated from other coneflowers if you wish to harvest seed or use the small reseeded plants. “White Lustre” and “Green Edge” are also reported to be stable seed strains.  ‘White Lustre” has creamy petals and an orange cone while ‘Green Edge’ has a green outlined petal.  ‘White Lustre’ is a bit easier to find than ‘Green Edge’ but neither are common in local markets. ‘Virgin’ was patented as an “open pollinated cross”. It and some of the other whites will not breed true although a small number of the offspring will resemble the parent plants.

My ‘Doppelganger’, with its two tiered flowers, is a reliable strain, a good thing because it appears that the original plant may be dead. There are lots of little plants around it but it is planted awfully close to some purple and white coneflowers. Time will tell. Since ‘Doppelganger’ only produces the double flowers on plants that are two years old or older it will be some time before we see if there are any ‘Doppelgangers’ left.

Like many stable seed strains ‘Doppelganger’ was first noticed by a grower as an anomaly among other Echinacea. The German plant breeder, Eugene Schleipfer, worked with this unusual plant until he had stable seed. It takes many years of breeding to achieve this type of stability.  ‘Razzmatazz’ and ‘Pink Double Delight’ are double coneflowers developed by a breeding program in the Netherlands. ‘Pink Double Delight is a more compact version of ‘Razzmatazz’. Both are patented, so technically reproduction is prohibited but since ‘Razzmatazz’ is patented as “naturally-occurring whole plant mutation” it may very well come true from seed. One experiment by an amateur grower seems to suggest it is a hybrid. Of 8 seeds planted 3 resembled ‘Razzmatazz’. The others were resembled the common purple coneflower.  ‘Pink Double Delight’ is listed as a hybrid. I did plant it separately, so we shall see what happens. If ‘Razzmatazz’ is one of the parent plants the double strain may come through.

I haven’t seen any of the Meadowbrite series locally but they are being developed by the Chicago Botanic Garden. ‘Orange Meadowbrite’ is a hybrid but of what species the hybridizers are not providing specifics. ‘Mango’ is a naturally occurring mutant of ‘Orange Meadowbrite’. ‘Pixie Meadowbrite’ is a pink dwarf resulting from an E. tennesseensis x E. purpurea and E. angustifolia x E. tennesseensis. These are all naturally occurring species. This one is going to produce anything and everything from seed. I’d say don’t bother saving seed.

The newest series on the market is the Big Sky Series. The hybridizer of the Big Sky Series is Richard Saul who crossed Echinacea purpura with Echinacea paradoxa. Paradoxa is the relatively rare yellow cone flower. It is found in the wild only in Arkansas Ozarks and Missouri. The name paradoxa comes from the fact that it is a yellow purple coneflower. Another name for it is Bush’s purple coneflower.

In 10 years Saul has produced a number of exquisitely shaded coneflowers ranging from pale yellows through brilliant oranges and rosy pinks through red purples. There is even a bi-color. All are of course hybrids and cannot be reproduced from seed. They, like many of the other coneflowers are patented and cannot even be reproduced through vegetative reproduction. The following Big Sky Series Echinacea are currently available.

  • Sunrise….The, first to be introduced, has citron yellow petals. Height 30”-36”
  • Sunset……The second in the series is salmon with an orange-brown cone. 24”30”
  • Twilight….Rose red with the fragrance of a rose. 24”-30”
  • Harvest Moon registered as Mathew Saul…This one is gold. 24”-30”
  • Sundown registered as Evan Saul…Intense orange. 32”-40”
  • Summer Sky registered as Katie Saul…A bicolor with the rose petals that fade to peach at the tips 30”-36”
  • After Midnight. Magenta/purple with a red black cone. Dwarf at 12”