It’s that time of the year when the days are getting shorter, and the early morning air holds promise of frost. Early Autumn is a beautiful time in the garden, borders are exploding in final colourful displays and seedheads are starting to add structure and texture through the landscape. Unfortunately Autumn is also the typical time of the year when many people catch a head cold.
The late summer and early Autumn blooming flower in this weeks column is one well known to many for its medicinal properties. A course of Echinacea drops or tablets is widely available to buy and is said to strengthen the immune system and thus prevent colds. The plant is native to North America and traditionally the North American Plains natives would use the root of this plant to treat everything from snake bites to toothaches.
This plant is not only useful for its medicinal properties though, it is a stunning flower for the garden. The hardy perennial is available in various colour varieties from pinks and purples to whites. For this article I decided to focus on the Echinacea purpurea, a striking variety with deep coral spiky-textured centres, which are show-stoppingly lovely when examined up close.
With this spiky centre it is no surprise that one of its common names is ‘Hedgehog’. In actual fact, the name Echinacea comes from the Greek word Ekhinos, meaning hedgehog or sea urchin!
Surrounding this unusual centre is a daisy like row of pink petals which make this plant a very rewarding part of a planting scheme. These flowers are have strong stems and don’t require staking making them a brilliant addition to any garden. Native to the prairie, this plant cannot be found growing wild anywhere but in its native North America and the plant is perfect for gardens that have a loose meadow feel, often seen in the ‘New Naturalism’ design approach in gardens.
I have planted some of these beauties in my own garden and it is very effective to plant them in informal drifts or ‘rivers’ through a scheme. Masses of colourful dots of coral pink look wonderful surrounded by soft swathes of grasses such as Mexican feather grass or Pheasant’s tail grass. They also look lovely with the more structured foliage of blue Salvias or Russian Sage as a strong colour contrast.
Caring for these flowers is relatively easy but the main thing to remember is good drainage. They will not do well in soil that is waterlogged and may just rot away.
Deadheading the flowers on these beauties may encourage growth but bees and butterflies do love the seedheads in Autumn. They also provide important food for birds in the Winter months. Apart from that, once you have seen Echinacea seedheads standing tall in the frosty morning Winter sunshine, then you will certainly leave a few untouched to do their magic!
A big thanks to Jack Cunnane of the amazing Western Plant Nursery in Screen, County Sligo which specializes in Hardy Coastal planting.