The Echinacea Cultivar Control Board: A Modest Proposal

I’m very fond of purple coneflowers and other members of the genus Echinacea. However, there is something disconcerting about the multitude of occasionally bizarre Echinacea cultivars being put out by plant breeders. I mean, what was the thinking behind Echinacea ‘Double Decker’?

Echinacea 'Double Decker'
Echinacea ‘Double Decker’

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a straight species purist. I plant cultivars. But why develop cultivars that negate the essential character of the plant? For example, the whole idea of a coneflower is the central cone. It’s in the name, right? And yet, we have this.

Echinacea 'Secret Passion'
Echinacea ‘Secret Passion’

What’s this supposed to be, a dahlia? A double zinnia? It’s certainly no coneflower.

What’s more, based on the comments generated by my last post, it seems that the Echinacea cultivars are frequently not garden-worthy. I had written that I was considering Echinacea ‘Tikki Torch’ because I wanted a taller orange perennial. Almost without exception, the commenters advised against such a move. In their experience, the cultivars often had problems with disease resistance and making it through the winter.

Their reaction confirmed my reflexive resistance to Echinacea cultivars, which was based on a gut feeling that even the less peculiar ones just didn’t look right.

Echinacea 'Pink Poodle'
Echinacea ‘Pink Poodle’. What an undignified name for what should be a dignified flower.

(NOTE: the above three photos all come from bluestoneperennials.com.)

In any case, we as gardeners must stand up for that great genus, Echinacea, before it’s too late. But how?

I would propose the creation of a Federal Echinacea Cultivar Control Board (FECCB). The FECCB would be empowered to prevent commercial production and sale of Echinacea varieties that are just too stupid for words. Doesn’t the European Union do something like this?

All Echinacea cultivars would be subject to FECCB approval. The Board would divide cultivars into three categories:

  1. Nice. These would be cleared for distribution without any restrictions.
  2. If You Must. These could be produced and sold, but only with an official FECCB sticker which reads: “WARNING: Purchase of this plant may make you feel silly in a year or two.”
  3. You’re Kidding, Right? These cultivars would be banned. Possession of a small number for sale would be a misdemeanor, massing for greater impact would be a felony.

With the creation of the FECCB, we can rest assured that Echinaceas have been saved for future generations. Thank you

Purple Coneflowers
What purple coneflowers are supposed to look like.

45 Comments on “The Echinacea Cultivar Control Board: A Modest Proposal

  1. Ha! I am a little more free market than that, but I am right with you in thinking the first two you presented are grotesque examples of this elegant genus. I think in the end, the excellent plants will win out in the end… if only because they have shone a greater able to survive. Perhaps botanical snobbery has its place?

    • You raise a good point. Should there be one big commission for all plants, or should the approach be decentralized? Or maybe I should just make all the decisions? For the right salary, I’d be willing.

  2. Totally in agreement, there are quite a few that should be consigned to the compost heap as soon as they open!!

  3. More likely than not, these gaudy cultivars decrease the wildlife value of the plant too, as double-flower forms typically have less (and sometimes no) pollen, nectar, and/or seeds, and also make these foods more difficult to reach and consume.

    • That’s definitely true. The straight species are usually evolved specifically to guide pollinators to the right spot. Mess with that and you create problems for plant and insect.

  4. You are so right. The other echinacea travesty is making cultivars that belong in someone’s lunch box — the muddy red one called Tomato Soup, and the orangey yellow one called Mac n Cheese. Really? The idea of garden flowers as rewarmed diner food put me off. And the colors were ehhh, so why breed them this way? I support your control board proposal 100%.

  5. I fell victim to the addiction of all the new echinacea and some have done fine…those that resemble a real echinacea do the best…but an echinacea is an echinacea and they are all a problem for the reasons you have said here.

  6. I succumbed to a few echinacea cultivars last summer. They don’t seem very robust. We’ll see if they make it through the winter. I wonder if the frailty of fancy cultivars is part of a “business plan” to trick us into buying pretty, odd things that have short lives, thereby forcing us to buy more to replace them.

    • Planned obsolescence for plants, that makes sense. Also, as I said above, I think some of this must be driven by the need for novelty to boost sales.

  7. I love it…I hope I can get elected to your board! I wouldn’t say I’m a total purist, but I generally like plants that are fairly close to their natural form. I’m all for breeding for things like sturdiness, disease-resistance and whatnot, but when they start messing with the form of a plant, I’m done. I don’t know why someone thought that the prominent central cone and elegantly reflexing petals were things that needed to be “fixed”. To me…those are the things that set Echinacea apart…and make it unique.

    • My thinking is that we would streamline the FECCB by giving power of appointment to myself. So, you’re in! With this position comes great power, and great responsibility.

      You state very succinctly my feeling about breeding plants that look like something other than what they are.

  8. Sign me up for your board! I’s just glad that one of the originals, Echinacea tenneseensis, is off the endangered species list and was named a plant of the year.

  9. I’ve looked at some of the new colours for echinacea and have been tempted but keep hearing about how they aren’t reliable too. I think the first poster has it bang on. Gardeners get suckered every year into spending money on new pretty plants but in the end the tried and true varieties will be the winners.

    • I admit some of the new colors have appealed to me as well. And the really awful cultivars will probably disappear over time. But then there will be new really awful cultivars! We gardeners will just keep wasting a certain portion of our money on regrettable plants.

  10. Are you sure those are real cultivars? Did you Photoshop them? 😉 I mean, really… When it comes to Echinacea, I’m sticking with the original Purple Cone Flower. I volunteer to help with the FECCB’s communications and public relations.

  11. I actually love some of the new ones – but I think the bees would just rather have the old kind. And an entire field of the new ones would look plain silly!

    • I was just reading something by William Culina, who used to head the NE Wildflower Society, about how the pompom varieties are very popular.

  12. Some of those plants look like something out of Dr.Seuss book! It is just not right! I think we humans can over do things a bit. Just staying with the natural and simplest forms of things is always more beautiful!

  13. This is where I was meant to post my comment!! “I definitely prefer them as how they’re meant to be. Those double deckers are hilarious! I’ve never managed to grow the purple echinacea? I love it, but simply can not grow it? Very strange??!!”

    • Not sure how the conditions are where you garden. Echinacea purpurea is pretty adaptable. It prefers full sun but will take a bit of shade. Does ok in drier soil once established, doesn’t like really wet soils. Have you tried plants or seeds?

      • Hi I’ve tried both. My seeds never germinate and the plants just plain disappeared? I am guessing they were eaten. I will try again this year and maybe keep them in a pot in a sunny place. Hopefully they will germinate. Do you grow them from seed?

  14. Hysterical! And true. I especially love the FECCB Board categories. “If you must”–perfect! Not too unlike the Académie française.

  15. Your post made me laugh. I feel exactly the same way! How many twists and turns is this humble flower going to be put through. I agree that the Echinacea ‘Double Decker’ looks ridiculous. ‘Secret Passion’ does look more like a zinnia or a dahlia. And “Pink Pooodle”- well, the name says it all. Enough already! I have only had luck with one of these fancy Echinacea. The rest haven’t made it through the winter.

  16. Fabulous! I laugh and I so agree! The only echinacea hybrids I had consistent luck with, I can no longer find. Right from your neck of the woods, I believe they were developed at Chicago Botanic gardens: Art’s Pride (reliably hardy and reliably orange) and Mango Meadowbright (also reliably hardy and just as delicious as it sounds). My theory: they were too good and not nearly silly enough.

  17. Hi Jason, I couldn’t agree more! We have a stand of “normal” Echinacea and they really don’t need improving to the point of gaudiness. A lot of the catalogues I get through are full of “new and unusual” such as multi-coloured standard roses and fuschias with palm-sized flowers, foxgloves with trumpets that face up, lilies with flowers bigger than dinner plates and such like. They look awful, have severe hidden drawbacks and I stay well away from them.

  18. Why? Because they can. 😉 I agree that ‘Double Decker’ is ugly. I prefer the singles, but some of the doubles are stunning, though. You just can’t use them the same way. I’ll admit to trying to create them myself, 15+ years ago, before all them showed up. Crossed Echinacea paradoxa with all the other species. Guess I gave up too soon. After three generations, nothing unusual showed up, so figured that it just wasn’t genetically possible. *shrug*

  19. That E. ‘double decker’ looks like it has aster yellows…I can’t believe they would actually ‘want’ it to look that way!! I had to rip out all of mine last year due to aster yellows, and I sure wouldn’t want to purchase one that looked like that ‘naturally’! Also, those with the fluff and frills aren’t valuable to pollenators because they either a) cannot get through all the layers to find the pollen or b) there IS no pollen in some of these double cultivars, making them useless to bees and butterflies. I only grow the native varieties now.

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