In recent years echinacea has undergone a dramatic redesign. Long revered as a valuable native herb as well as a stalwart garden staple, gone are the days you could simply refer to it as purple cone flower. A veritable rainbow of colors are now represented in the echinacea palette, resulting in the National Garden Bureau naming 2014 as the Year of the Echinacea.

Today, more and more gardeners are seeking out perennial plants as long-term investments that offer good value at an effective cost. Perennials are the building blocks of any home garden and echinacea is at the top of the list.

According to the NGB, echinacea has been one of the varieties seeing a significant growth in breeding activity. It remains a “top five” perennial in terms of retail sales. Several advances have produced plants that have set a new standard in compact-growing, well-branched echinacea.

This good news means that breeding trials have resulted in bringing free-flowering plants to market that overwinter successfully in cooler zones — like right here for instance. Poor winter hardiness is a source of frustration with some gardeners. Historically, echinacea with bolder color hues (red, yellow, orange) have been grown from tissue culture liners. This propagation can lack good winter hardiness and may not bulk up in size in subsequent seasons. However, recent breeding has developed seed-grown varieties selected specifically for their bold coloring and trialed for overwintering success to USDA Zone 4.

One that has excelled in my garden is a yummy, fluffy-headed orange variety Secret Lust, bred by Terra Nova Nurseries of Oregon.

The NGB says that the coneflower is a native to central and eastern North America and is a member of the Asteraceae family. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recognizes nine distinct species of echinacea. Other flowers in the Asteraceae family include daisy, sunflower and aster. The name “Asteracea” finds its origin from the Greek word for star. The main family feature is its composite flower type: Its capitula (flower head) is surrounded by involucral bracts. Most echinacea blooms are oversized bright disks atop rings of downward-curving petals. The name “echinacea” is also derived from the Greek word “echino,” which means spiky or prickly, referring to the plant’s floral center. The florets are hermaphroditic, with both male and female organs on each flower. Pollination occurs most often with the help of butterflies and bees.

The plant prefers loamy, well-drained soil, but it is little affected by soil pH. Cultivated echinacea offer reliable performance as a perennial plant under a wide variety of conditions. Echinacea can be propagated from seed or vegetatively using various techniques, such as division, basal cuttings or root cuttings. Echinacea are generally low maintenance. Plant in full sun. Dividing every few years will keep the plants healthy. No additional fertilizing is necessary as heavy fertilization leads to tall, leggy plants that flop. Also, avoid over-watering as echinacea prefer drier conditions once established. While most home garden echinacea is ornamental, it can be grown as a fresh or dried cut flower. Allow flowers to mature on the plant before harvesting. Dry by hanging upside down in a well-ventilated, dry area. Fresh echinacea has a short vase life of seven days.

Echinacea may be affected by slugs, Japanese beetles, Bacterial Leaf Spot, Powdery Mildew, or botrytis. And are generally considered to be deer-resistant. For best visual impact, plant in masses. Deadhead florets to encourage further blooms. Echinacea flowers through the summer (June through August). Its seed heads can be left to dry on the plant to feed wild birds through the fall and winter. Echinacea plants will reseed in the fall, with new flowers growing the following season. Hardiness zones vary by variety, with a range from USDA Zone 4-9.

Started from seed, echinacea will flower in 11-15 weeks so if started indoors early enough, it is possible to get flowers in the first season. With most varieties, sow seeds indoors 8-10 weeks before outdoor planting date. Plant the seeds 1/8-inch deep in soilless growing medium. Cover lightly with 1/4-inch fine soil and keep moist at 65-70 F. Seedlings should emerge in approximately 10-20 days. As with most seedlings, you can transplant them to larger containers when seedlings have at least two pairs of true leaves. Before transplanting the young plants to the outside garden, harden off by exposing the plants to outdoors for gradually increasing time frames.

According to NGB: Herbalists use the roots/rhizomes and herbs of Echinacea to treat or ward off various infections and maladies. It offers a general boost to the immune system, and has antidepressant properties. Echinacea angustifolia was used by Native Americans to soothe sore throats, headaches or coughs — symptoms of the common cold. They first saw the benefit of using echinacea medicinally by observing elk that sought out the plant and ate it when wounded or sick. In the mid-19th century echinacea was used as a pain reliever and increased in use as an herbal medicine through the 1930s in America and Europe. The plant E. purpurea contains the chemical compounds cichoric acid and caftaric acid. These phenols are common to many other plants. Other phenols include echinacoside (found in E. angustifolia and E. pallida roots). These phenols can serve as markers for the quantity of raw echinacea in the product. Other plant components that contribute to health effects include alkylamides and polysaccharides.

Common/popular varieties

• Cheyenne Spirit is a seed grown hybrid echinacea with excellent overwinter performance on drought tolerant plants. It is an All-America Selections winner, regarded for its brilliant segregated color range: red, orange, purple, scarlet, cream, yellow and white. Hardy to USDA Zone 4. It grows 18-30 inches (46-76 cm) tall and 10-20 inches (25-51 cm) wide.

• Double Scoop Orangeberry, available as vegetatively propagated plants, grows 24-26 inches (56-66 cm) tall and spreads 16-22 inches (41-56 cm) wide. It is hardy to USDA Zone 4 with a high count of fully double, pompom flowers in bright colors.

• Kim’s Knee-Hi grows 18-30 inches (46-76 cm) tall, spreading 24-36 inches (61-91 cm) wide. It is a vegetatively propagated variety with mauve-pink petals drooping back around a burned-red center.

• Magnus, a basally branching seed grown variety, grows to 26-36 inches (66-91 cm) tall and produces large 4.5-inch (11 cm) blooms. Petals are held flatter than other varieties in a pink-rose color with orange-brown center. Tolerates heat, drought and wind.

• PowWow Wild Berry is an All-America Selections winner. This seed-raised echinacea has intense rose coloring and produces many flowers in its first season. It is very drought tolerant and doesn’t experience color fade. Remains compact at 16-20 inches (41-51 cm) tall and spreads 12-16 inches (30-41 cm) wide in the garden.

• Prairie Splendor is an American Garden Award Prize Winner from 2010, as voted on by the gardening public and it’s no wonder! Prairie Splendor offers non-stop blooms almost a full two weeks earlier than most echinacea and blooms right through fall. It is 24 (61 cm) inches tall and available from seed.

• Primadonna White is a white compact plant with nice, bright white flowers, perfect for the evening garden. It also has orange-green cones that stand up erect from the petals. Hardy in USDA Zones 4-9, this variety, available from seed, grows 28- 36 inches (68-91 cm) tall and can also be used as a cut flower.

• Sombrero Hot Coral grows 22-24 inches (56-61 cm) tall, spreading in the garden 24-26 inches (61-66 cm). Available as vegetatively propagated plants, it blooms June through August and has vibrant color with overlapping petals which leaves no gaps. It grows on sturdy stems, and is floriferous for many months of enjoyment each season.

• Tomato Soup is a beautiful tomato-red echinacea with large 5-inch blooms that are deliciously fragrant. These long-blooming plants grow up to 32 inches (80 cm) tall and are available as vegetatively propagated plants.

• White Swan is a white-flowering echinacea growing 18-22 inches (46-55 cm tall). Raised from seed, it has a yellow center over dark green, coarse and serrated leaves, and is heat and drought tolerant.

Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the Garden Writers Association’s Silver Award of Achievement, and she gardens in Camden. Got questions, or comments? Visit her blog, and join in the conversation at: or ”friend” her on Facebook to see what’s new in the garden day-by-day.