Coneflowers: Native vs Hybrid

Echinacea, or coneflower, is possibly one of the most well known prairie flowers. Endemic to North American prairies, it is known around the world for its medicinal properties and its versatility as a cut flower. There are ten distinct species of naturally occurring echinacea, but the horticultural industry has created countless hybrids.
Though native echinacea only comes in purple, pale purple, or yellow, hybridized echinacea can be red, orange, pink, green or even multi-color. But what besides color make these new coneflowers different? And are there any downsides to using engineered plants over natives?

 

Our native Echinacea pallida always has thin, reflexed petals and a pale purple hue.

‘Julia’ is a hybrid coneflower sporting vibrant orange flowers on strong stems. Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens.

How They Are Made: Wilderness Vs Laboratory

Most newfangled varieties of Echinacea are from the species E. purpurea. Unassuming and bright, the ‘straight species’ of Echinacea purpurea has long lasting purple blooms that readily self seed in the garden. Insects pollinate these wild coneflowers by carrying pollen (i.e. genetic material) between whatever echinaceas are nearby, producing seeds with mixed traits and variable habits. However, hybrid varieties have much more protected DNA, developed by humans through hand pollinating of flowers with desirable qualities. It can take years to successfully select, cross, and stabilize a genetic line of new coneflowers for the garden market.

This variety of Echinacea called ‘ Cleopatra’ has eye catching yellow flowers. Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens.

Pros

Using hybrid echinacea gives you more options. If you like to make bold statements and thematic garden designs, a wider color pallette is always more fun. The hybrid types come in all different sizes as well, meaning customers can choose tall or dwarf types to fit multiple landscaping needs. Native coneflowers, like E. pallida or E. paradoxa, will always be between 1.5-3 ft tall when planted in optimal conditions. Beyond height, genetically modified coneflowers often have better branching and a more compact habit than the native type. They are usually less prone to flopping over, and some even have a longer bloom period. For gardens with limited space, hybrid coneflowers offer lots of color in a more manageable package.

E. angustifolia is an iconic prairie flower, beloved by pollinators and humans alike.

 

‘Salsa’ Echinacea is from the Sombrero series of coneflowers offered by Walter’s Garden. All of the varieties shown in this post will be available at our fall plant sale!

Cons

Native coneflowers are excellent food sources for pollinators, but the jury is still out on whether hybrids are as beneficial. We know that hybrid echinaceas with double and triple blooms are useless to pollinators because the extra petals block nectar and pollen. However, preliminary studies on the subject suggests some single flowered hybrids are as attractive to pollinators as their parent plants.

Additionally, some hybrid varieties are sterile and do not produce viable seeds to support seed eating birds. Humans reproduce most hybrid varieties through vegetative propagation, either by tissue culture or by cuttings and divisions. This means they are genetic clones of each other and do not contribute to genetic diversity within the Echinacea gene pool. Less genetic diversity transmitted to the next generation of plants leaves echinacea species’ at risk for disease and decay of their genetic line. Ecological considerations aside, some new varieties don’t seem to be as long lived as the true natives. 

Bumblebee visiting Echinacea purpurea – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Whether or not you go with true natives or new varieties of coneflower depends on the purpose of your planting. If you want an ecological planting that increases biodiversity and improves habitat, then stick with Kansas natives. But to simply improve the aesthetics of your landscape and add a splash of color, new hybrid varieties will do the trick. Come to the FloraKansas fall plant sale and get your fill of coneflowers, native and otherwise!

Know Your Native Plant Families

As we approach our Native Plant Landscaping Symposium on February 24, where speakers will tell stories about their favorite native plants, they may make reference to using certain families of plants. Thinking about the organization of plants in this way makes landscaping with native plants even more interesting.

In a way, native plants are like people. The closer people are in genetic relation to each other, the closer they resemble each other. Family members share skin color, body type, hair texture, and facial features. While a unique name is given to each person to recognize their individuality, part of that name is kept the same and recognized both with close and distant relations. These closely-bonded people develop similar habitat preferences and interact with their environment in similar ways.

In 1758, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus developed a Latin naming system for plants and animals. Each plant or animal was given a “genus” (generic name) and “species” (specific name). Plant families include genetically related plants share floral structures, leaf arrangements, and stem shape. Multiple genera can make up a family. Along with the scientific name, people have also given each plant species many common names or nicknames.

Asclepias incarnata, otherwise known as swamp milkweed or marsh milkweed, is a member of the DOGBANE FAMILY.

For example, plants in the DOGBANE FAMILY have five-parted flowers, opposite leaves, and a milky juice in the stems and leaves with a bitter-tasting, toxic compound that protects the plants from being eaten by insects (excluding monarch butterfly larvae). In this family, the milkweed genus (Asclepias) has 22 different species in Kansas. You may not recognize from their common names that butterfly milkweed and green antelopehorn are related, but when you see their Latin names, Asclepias tuberosa and Asclepias viridis, you will know better.

Kansans have many good reasons for landscaping with native plants. Some of the best benefits are: 1) they provide natural beauty throughout the seasons, 2) they attract pollinators and other wildlife that are part of the food chain, 3) they offer drought-tolerant, environmentally-friendly plants to work with, and 4) they represent our state’s rich prairie natural heritage. By learning more about native plant families, you can add more diversity to your garden, creating a wider range of habitat for wildlife.

Additional plant families commonly found in the prairie, which are well represented at our plant sale, include:

SUNFLOWER FAMILY

Includes the largest number of species in the prairie; many flowers or “florets” in one head with both inner disk florets and outer ray florets.

Echinacea pallida, otherwise known as pale purple coneflower, is a member of the SUNFLOWER FAMILY.

BEAN FAMILY

These “legumes” have a distinctive five petal flower, form bean pods, and fix nitrogen into the soil thanks to special bacteria living on the roots.

Baptisia australis, also known as blue wild indigo or blue false indigo, is a member of the BEAN FAMILY.

MINT FAMILY

These plants have square stems and opposite leaves that create aromatic oils. Most garden herbs are in the mint family.

Salvia azurea, also known as blue sage, is a member of the MINT FAMILY.

GRASS FAMILY

Flowers are colorless and wind pollinated, and stiff fibrous stems help carry fire when dormant. Most agricultural crops are in the grass family.

Schizochirium scoparium, also known as little bluestem, is a member of the GRASS FAMILY.

 

Each summer at our Earth Partnership for Schools Institute, we begin our week-long K-12 teacher training with an introduction to plants through an exercise called “Plant Families”. This is a great way to give some organization to the understanding of how plants are named and classified. I think you will enjoy having access to this resource – check it out and have fun while learning your plant families! (Plant Families EPS Curriculum Activity)

Teachers examine grass flowers while learning about plant families.

 

Scott’s Top Ten Sun-Loving Plants for Spring 2015

One of the themes this spring for planting is diversity.  By planting a diversity of wildflowers and grasses in your garden, you will attract many different forms of wildlife, including pollinators and birds.  A wide variety of plants blooming at different times of the year will provide interest and beauty throughout the growing season.

As we have been busily getting ready for the plant sale this week, I can’t help but notice the diversity of plants available this spring.  There are so many wonderful plants to choose and incorporate into a landscape setting.

Here are my top sun-loving plants for the spring sale:

Asclepias_viridis

Green Antelopehorn (Asclepias viridis)

This is the 2015 Kansas Native Plant Society wildflower of the year.  It grows 18 to 24 inches tall with green flowers in May and June.  It loves full sun and thrives in dry prairies.  Monarchs use milkweeds as a host plants.  Grow this species or any other milkweeds to increase habitat for the perilous populations of monarchs.


Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’

It is beautiful in flower and foliage.  In early spring, the whitish-pink tubular flowers emerge.  Bees and even hummingbirds flock to these flowers to sip the sweet nectar.  Not only is it attractrive when blooming but the maroon-purple foliage adds interest the rest of the year.  A plant for the front of a border that is attractive at many different seasons of the year.


Blue Grama Blonde Ambition

Blue Grama, Boutleoua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’

I was blown away by this grass last summer.  It looked fantastic with the airy golden flowers all summer.  The horizontal eyelash-like flowers wave in the wind atop the fine blue-green foliage.  It grows effortlessly in any sunny site and just about any soil.  Great in mass plantings or along borders edges.  Quite the dramatic, unique grass.


Vernonia Iron Butterfly

Ironplant, Vernonia lettermanii ‘Iron Butterfly’

I have grown to appreciate the toughness of this wildflower.  This selection found in Arkansas has fine foliage like Amsonia hubrichtii but stays more compact.  The dark purple flowers cover the entire plant in late summer attracting pollinators by the herd.  It thrives in hot dry locations.  When other plants are wilting, it is performing like a champ.


Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Arkansas Bluestar, Amsonia hubrichtii

I have put this plant on my top ten list just about every year because it is a great plant.  Sky blue flowers in spring develop atop stems with narrow leaves that whorl the stem.  Each plant can grow about three feet tall and three feet wide.  The real show is in the fall as the entire plant turns a beautiful golden yellow.  Plant in mass or alone in the middle of the border.  A garden worthy plant that should be used more.


Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Little Bluestem Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Twilight Zone’

This is a new and improved form of native Little Bluestem.  It colors up beautifully in the early fall but the iridescent silver-mauve foliage from spring to fall is eye-catching. Growing stiffly upright, this grass reaches three to four feet tall by the end of summer.  Plant as a backdrop for other perennials because the foliage is a wonderful complement.  Great native grass for interesting foliage and form.


Photo courtesy Terra Nova Nursery.

Photo courtesy Terra Nova Nursery.

Agastache ‘Raspberry Summer’

What an awesome perennial!  The large, dark raspberry pink blooms cover this plant all summer and into fall.  Pollinators flock to the blooms and make the plant come alive with activity.  Plant in full sun and well-drained soil.


ArbFlowers 143

Yellow Purple Coneflower Echinacea paradoxa

A yellow purple coneflower is a paradox.  However, it is tough and beautiful.  The flowers emerge in May and June with long yellow ray petals.  It grows best in full sun, ultimately reaching 3-4 feet tall.  Mix with native grasses like Little Bluestem or Switchgrass to showcase the attractive seedheads later in the year.


Solidago ‘Little Lemon’               Photo courtesy of North Creek Nurseries 

Solidago “Little Lemon’

Goldenrods get a bad rap for causing allergies.  Actually, they don’t cause your allergies in the fall – that is the fault of the ragweed pollen instead.  So now that you know that tid-bit of information, you can plant this dwarf goldenrod in your garden.  It grows to 12 inches tall and mixes well with short grasses along a border or edge.  Plant in full sun for best results.


Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Beebalm Monarda ‘Cherry Pops’

Brilliant cherry-red flowers cover this new bee balm in midsummer.  The well-branched plants have clean mildew-resistant foliage creating a compact mound.  Each nectar sweet flower attracts hosts of pollinators throughout the summer.  Great new form for the front of a border or along a sidewalk.


It is time to get these plants in the ground.  The beneficial rains of the past few weeks have really got me itching to plant some of these varieties this spring.  There are so many beautiful plants that are worth trying.  Hopefully, you will have a chance to stop by the plant sale, take a look and give some of them a try in your own garden.