Echinacea are sometimes confused with Rudbeckia: one of their problems is that they both share the common name of coneflower. In fact, I have even seen them mixed up in a nursery catalogue. The easiest way to tell them apart is to look at, and touch, the centre of the flower. Echinacea comes from the Greek, echinos which, roughly translated means ‘spiny’. The centre of Echinacea does indeed feel slightly prickly or spiny whereas the centre of Rudbeckia is much softer.
Echinacea is a hardy perennial, although I have sometimes struggled to keep them over winter. I put this down to the soil being too wet, rather than the cold per se. So free-draining soil is the watchword here. They also like a humus-rich soil - not too fussy, then, she says with a touch of irony. They’ll grow to about 60cm in height and have a spread of about 45cm
– I say ‘about’ because there are always exceptions, so these are really rough guides.
You can grow them from seed, or you can increase your stock by taking root cuttings in the dormant season (see my post Cuttings).
Most people grow the straightforward Echinacea purpurea which has, as its name implies, purpley, somewhat washed-out flowers, but there are lots of new introductions, many of which have kept the same basic colour tone, such as E. purpurea ‘Pow Wow’ which is a rose pink. Others, however, like E. purpurea ‘Harvest Moon’ (a buttery-yellow), and E. purpurea ‘Primadonna White’ have broken into other parts of the spectrum.
There is on-going debate about the efficacy of Echinacea as a medicinal herb: some people swear by its ability to reduce the chances of catching a cold and boost the immune system, while other dismiss such claims as spurious at best. Either way, all varieties are well worth growing in the garden for their attractiveness alone, particularly if you want to attract beneficial insects into your garden: bees, especially, love Echinacea.
The other coneflower, Rudbeckia, is a native of North America. It likes sun and similar soil conditions to Echinacea. It grows a bit bigger than Echinacea, but this very much depends on the variety. Propagation is by division or basal cuttings in the spring, or softwood cuttings during the summer.
You may come across seeds of Rudbeckia hirta – although these are classed as perennial, they are short-lived and are usually grown as a biennial. If you’re looking for something other than a yellow-flowered specimen, then give R. hirta a go – varieties now include ‘Cherry Brandy’ and ‘Cherokee Sunset’: the names say it all!
There are a number of excellent longer-lived perennial Rudbeckia to choose from but probably the best known has the longest name: Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’. Of all the relatively recent introductions, R. fulgida ‘Early Bird Gold’ is perhaps the most exciting. It starts to flower in early summer and will carry on until mid to late autumn, depending on the weather. It has a very long season which provides the border with a steady anchor whilst other herbaceous specimens with shorter flowering periods drift by.
Although quite at home in the average herbaceous border, both Echinacea and Rudbeckia lend themselves to the ‘prairie’ planting style, interspersed with grasses and other perennials.
And let's not forget that bees and other pollinators love them too.