Echinacea Worth Meeting

'Red Ombre’ center cones quickly collapse, as seen in bottom bloom. Photo: Lise Jenkins

THE ABSENTEE GARDENERS

By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

Let me introduce my latest fascination — Echinacea x hybrida ‘Red Ombre.’ I know what you’re thinking: What could possibly be special about an Echinacea?

Readers of this column may recall that I like to meet new plants by first learning their botanical name, so let’s start with the genus Echinacea. A member of the large Asteraceae family, sometimes called the aster or daisy family, Asteraceae encompasses over 1,900 genera and are found on every continent except Antarctica.

The genus Echinacea derives its name from the Greek word, “echinos,” meaning “hedgehog,” an illusion to its prickly center cone. Comprising hundreds of individual florets, the spiny appearance of the center cone is created by sharp bracts attached to each tiny floret.

The second part of its name, “x hybrida,” tells us it is the result of crossing different species in the Echinacea genus. Listings for this plant often described it as an “F1 hybrid,” meaning it is a first generation, the result of crossing two different species of Echinacea. If you are able to collect viable seeds from an F1 hybrid, the resulting next generation will not look like its parent plant.

This inability to “breed true” produces a more valuable plant for the nursery growers — if you want an Echinacea x hybrida ‘Red Ombre’ you’ll have to purchase one, instead of being able to grow it from seeds you collected last season. That’s fine with me; I’m happy to pay for this beauty.

You may also see this plant described as a “cultivar,” a variety of plant that has been developed in cultivation. In other words, this plant was created by people rather than nature.

‘Red Ombre’ is enjoying its second season in my garden and is really earning its spot this year. We’ve endured some torrential rains with overflowing gutters dumping ground-eroding amounts of water, but ‘Red Ombre’ continues to proudly stand. The individual flowers last around six weeks, buds keep emerging and the show continues. Starting out bright red, the flowers soften into different shades, creating a richer effect.

This plant makes my eyes happy but my heart is a little sad because it’s only a people pleaser.

You may recognize Echinacea as a genus native to North America. It feeds pollinators when it blooms and its seeds later provide a bounty for birds. But the bees are paying little attention to my ‘Red Ombre,’ and after a couple of weeks, the center cones start to collapse, leaving little for the birds to feast on when they arrive in late summer. It’s putting on a great show for me but ‘Red Ombre’ offers little nutrition for the wild things visiting my garden.

Echinacea hybridizes easily — plant breeders tempt us with sizzling colors, double flowers, and sizes to fit every location. Some of these new cultivars offer little nutritionally; while my ‘Red Ombre’ seems to be in this group, it’s not true for all the new cultivars.

The Mount Cuba Research Center has a report on their website entitled, “Echinacea for the mid-Atlantic Region” (https://mtcubacenter.org/trials/echinacea-mid-atlantic-region/). Of the top dozen plants they evaluated, nearly half were preferred by pollinators.

My garden is small, so I ask a lot of my plants — they need to both please and feed. But I’m smitten with ‘Red Ombre’ so I’m going to select a pollinator-preferred plant from the Mount Cuba report and add it to the neighboring bed. It’s sort of like purchasing carbon offset credits — I’ll do a little good to offset my guilt over gardening only for myself.


Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: info@absentee-gardener.com

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