It’s been a hot time in the garden this past month with more heat to come. We are more than seven inches below normal rainfall. This trend may continue for the next few years. Consequently, I am looking for a dependable flower that will tolerate heat and scanty rainfall and still bloom most of the summer.
Black-eyed susans (rudbeckia) fit this bill—they begin to bloom in June and continue right through September if I remember to do an early June pruning. As dependable as rudbeckia are, however, the only color they contribute is yellow, and I would like to add more color to my flower beds.
My roving eye has once again returned to coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea). They are perennial plants (so I don’t need to replace them each year), native to North America (and therefore beneficial to pollinators), bloom from June through August, and make great cut flowers for arrangements.
If your grandmother was a gardener she would have included echinacea purpurea in her garden for its dependable blooms and medicinal value. Traditionally known as ‘purple coneflower’ because of the purple/pink color of the blossom, echinacea purpurea is characterized by large daisy-like purple-pink flowers with large cone-shaped copper-colored centers. The plant can grow to 3 feet tall and has rigid stems with dark green foliage.
In the past ten years plant breeders have experimented with hybridizing the traditional coneflowers, and they have burst on the scene in so many beautiful cultivars and colors that knowledgeable gardeners will have to drop the ‘purple’ when referring to the plant.
The new varieties come with descriptive names such as ‘Snow Cone’, ‘Hot Papaya’, ‘Guava Ice’, ‘Tangerine Dream’ and ‘Coconut Lime’. Last year I planted ‘White Swan’ next to my purple coneflowers—they have come back strong and the white blooms are a lovely counterpoint to the original purple pink blooms. This year two of my fellow garden club members introduced me to the hybrid double bloom variety known as ‘Hot Papaya’, which has fragrant spicy-red flowers and a ‘pompom’ head. Planted as an accent in the garden bed or en masse, they are sure to catch the eye.
Coneflowers can now fulfill every gardener’s wish for color including pink, purple, yellow, orange, red and white as well as every shape from pompom to graceful tear-drop petals. While they prefer good drainage and full sun, they can adapt to part shade and are tolerant of dry soil. They bloom throughout the summer, and their sturdy stems remain erect in the autumn garden. If the flower heads are not removed, they provide seed fodder to birds, particularly goldfinches.
So mix it up with a collection of the new varieties on the market, and Grandma’s garden won't look like Grandma's garden anymore — you will enjoy a burst of cool color all summer long.
Eleni Silverman is a Master Gardener, Vice President of the Belle Haven Garden Club, Chair of the Landscape Committee at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and author of the garden blog "Belle Haven Garden Maven." She admits to a fascination with all things gardening, believes even compost is engaging, and will eagerly discuss the relative merits of leaf mold versus hardwood mulch.