A BREAK WITH THE PAST. A new set of rules. A higher bar. This describes the state of Echinacea today. Led by series like Kismet and Sombrero, the modern coneflower is nothing like the one we sold a decade ago. Now there are more vibrant colors, more stems, longer seasons, bigger flowers, and better lifespans. This jump in quality is the result of less focus on the flower alone and more attention to the overall plant. Renaissance breeding doesn’t stop with one or two breeders. The definition of success for the entire Echinacea category has shifted. Our new introductions include many improvements, not just one or two interesting features.
In the decades after World War II, as the housing market expanded to fuel the rise of the ornamental industry, the purpurea defined Echinacea. This era led to the pink coneflower as the classic look for the genre. Refinements focused on taming the wild plant and making it suitable for home gardens. The pinnacle of achievement was the nicest pink coneflower, and that stage of Echinacea has survived in ‘Magnus’ (tall) and ‘Kim’s Knee High’ (medium). Both are still sold today.
In 2004, Jim Ault in Illinois shocked the industry with the introduction of ‘Orange Meadowbrite’. Breeders still talk about the mind-bending moment—a coneflower that wasn’t pink! Other breeders, like the Saul Brothers (the Big Sky series) in Georgia and Dan Heim (‘Tomato Soup’, ‘Mac ’n’ Cheese’) in Oregon took notice, and the race was on to develop colors, more colors, and even more colors.
For the longest time, Echinacea had only one form. Then, like colors, new choices appeared. Doubles were the result of a mutation creating petals from the quills of the central cone. Many of these innovative doubles came from Europe. At its height, this pom-pom style overtook singles in popularity with cultivars like ‘Hot Papaya’.
The incredible variety of coneflowers seemed to peak about a decade ago. Every conceivable color and form had been released, and all possible genetic twists had been wrung out of the genome. Where could Echinacea go from here?
However, during this peak, feedback from the market caused breeders to rethink their strategies. Here and there, answers began to appear: multi-floral crowns, bigger stems, better winter survival, and longer lifespans. Attention shifted to improvements in the plant, not just the flower.
Renaissance breeding combines most of these improved features, and the very best Echinacea has all of these benefits in a single plant. A premium coneflower produces large, colorful flowers on thick stems in high numbers. It blooms longer, ages well, and survives better when compared to the older varieties.
An early innovation was abundance—the ability of a single crown to produce multiple floral stems. This benefit resulted in heavy bloom counts on a single plant.
Large bloom counts required robust plants to generate all those flowers. Thicker stems and hardier roots helped improve the blooms perched above them.
Quality of color also changed. Shades became increasingly vibrant. More durable pigments were selected, so the color lasted longer as well.
Maintaining a consistent color over time is nearly impossible, but breeders selected specimens that age to a second attractive hue. These flowers have a much longer garden appeal.
Breeders also began to select plants for their ability to survive wet winters. Not all gardens have ideal winter drainage, especially in dense soils like clay.
Gathered together, these improvements deliver better performance over time. In our trials, the new cultivars live longer than the older ones when planted side-by-side.
Many, many cultivars of Echinacea are sold on the market. When choosing varieties we focus on key features we admire, not just one but several. Bundled together, they make a plant garden worthy and desirable. We must want to grow it in our own gardens, and we often do.
Kismets are best-known for their five-inch blooms and the tall, bushy stance of their plants. Because the entire Kismet series was developed from a single breeding program, varieties are remarkably consistent in height and habit. The Kismets also wrap all the Renaissance traits into a single package: multi-floral crowns, robust plants, vibrant color, long seasons, and a longer lifespan.
Sombrero is focused on providing a wider range of colors and continuously improving its stock. ‘Sombrero Yellow Improved’, for example, is the finest single yellow on the market right now. As a series, Sombreros are shorter and tighter in habit and they bloom with a three-inch flower. They also have more variation among their heights and habits.
Echinaceas develop into doubles when the quills of the central cone mutate into petals instead. The result is a fuzzy pom-pom style of bloom with the ring petals drooping underneath. Then there is ‘Delicious Candy’, whose quills in the central cone are actually immature petals.
Over the decades, the average height of Echinaceas has shortened and tightened. ‘Kim’s Knee High’ used to be promoted as the short one. Now we sell it as a coneflower of medium height. Recent breeding has introduced several very short coneflowers.
‘Hot Coral’ was always the smallest of the Sombrero series. Darwin has paired it with a yellow to create a dwarf line of Echinacea. Rebranded as ‘Sombrero Poco Hot Coral’, it’s the same plant with a new name.
This Echinacea launches the Poco subbrand of Sombreros, focusing on short and compact plants. Flower width is roughly the same as a full-sized Sombrero, but the plant is several inches shorter and more narrow in shape.
Another European contribution, ‘Tweety’ is a Dutch coneflower with solid yellow petals surrounding a golden cone. It grows just over a foot, the shortest Echinacea we sell.
Renaissance breeding continues to bring innovations to the Echinacea market. Once a rare feature, bicolor blooms appear in several new selections in a variety of forms.
A short Echinacea, ‘Yellow Rainbow Marcella’ has one of the prettiest bicolors with the standard coneflower profile.
The best example of a pallada-style Echinacea, ‘Fiery Meadow Mama’ has drooping petals and a strong red eye surrounding the cone. It requires a complete winter to achieve a fully multi-floral crown.
‘Playful Meadow Mama’ has an unusual flower with Dahlia-like tips to the petals. The flower itself is quite large. Occasionally we see specimens with a double set of ring petals.
These mixes provide a variety of colors within a single purchase. ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ (2 to 3 feet) grows shorter than ‘Mellow Yellows’ (about 3 feet).
Not all varieties tarnish with age. Many earlier selections still sell well because their signature features are so widely loved. These cultivars are fondly remembered and frequently bought by gardeners, landscapers, and planners who return to their favorites.
Five-inch magenta-red blooms have a deeply brown cone and sit on an equally dark stem. ‘Big Sky Solar Flare’ is a good source of seed for birding gardens.
Produced by the Saul Brothers in Georgia, ‘Big Sky Sundown’ is the tall orange Echinacea with thick stems and a light fragrance. This cone is larger than usual and becomes an ideal bird feeding station when it goes to seed.
Back in the day, ‘Kim’s Knee High’ used to be promoted as a short coneflower. Now it is average in height, an example of how industry expectations have changed over the past 40 years.
Harvested in Sweden and commercialized by the European seed company Jelitto, ‘Magnus’ defines the classic Echinacea with a large pink flower.
Jim Ault of Chicagoland Grows developed one of the first multi-floral crowns through his crosses with other overlooked species. ‘Pica Bella’ has a very heavy bloom count.
Bred by Terra Nova,‘Tomato Soup’ gained a significant fanbase during the height of the second wave of breeding for its clean reds.