Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): A Seasonal Look

Are you interested in a long-blooming, tough-as-nails perennial that can withstand heat and drought, freeze and flood? Look no further than this gardener’s favorite, Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea.

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Glorious in its spring beauty, this wide-spread North American native is a must-have for any garden. Here in Central Texas, the aster family flowers bloom during spring and summer, resting in the July and August dormant-hot season.

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Though not quite as spectacular as in the spring show, there is usually a second flush of blooms during the autumn months.  In mild winters, Coneflowers bloom sporadically; a hard freeze nips the flowers and sends the plant into dormancy.

Individual plants form rosettes from seed, and those rosettes grow larger with maturity.

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During winter, the rosettes are evergreen, or mostly so.  I like to plant  in groups of three to seven, but I’m happy to let volunteers seed out where they may.  If I don’t like where a plant grows, I transplant it or pass it along  to another gardener.

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In my urban Austin garden, the foliage remains mostly evergreen through winter. Sometimes after a particularly hard freeze, exposed greenery suffers and the whole foliage rosette dies to the ground;; they typically emerge in early spring, ready for a long blooming season.   Since Purple Coneflowers range from Texas through the mid-Atlantic states and even a bit north and westward, the timing and severity of freezes and the flush of blooming varies from what Coneflowers experience here in Austin.

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As spring approaches, new foliage emerges and the rosettes thicken.

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In time, a bloom stalk shoots forward from the rosette,  followed by others.

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It always seems to take weeks for those first blooms to appear, but appear they do!

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By mid-to-late April (in Central Texas) the Purple Coneflower is in its prime blooming season.

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New bloom stalks adorned with accompanying flowers continue to grow into early June. Purple Coneflower plants, en masse, provide quite a show.

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A favorite of all kinds of bees and butterflies.

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Purple Coneflower is an excellent pollinator plant.  Sometimes, even the “bad” bugs will hop on for a ride,

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…but only rarely is there any damage to the flower, like this Cone with its neatly trimmed petals. Only a few of my Coneflowers have ever been damaged by insects.  It’s a tough, happy flower.  Remember that it’s just fine and dandy to have a few holes in your leaves or petals;  it means that you’re lovely plants are feeding some sort of wildlife and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

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One of the things I like most about the Purple Coneflower is that the individual blooms last a long time.  These are attractive garden plants for months and they complement other shrubs and perennials, in color and form. They also make great cut flowers for arrangements, if you’re so inclined.

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I’ve noticed that there’s often a subtle color difference in each of the individual flowers, even when sharing the same rosette; some are lighter, some are darker.  Coneflowers morph into a paler color as they age.

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As well, some are typical daisy-ray flowers,

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…and some sport petals that droop down like a botanical hula-dancer.

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As the summer months progress and Texas heat and dry weather pattern persists, Coneflowers’ color fades, the flowers coarsen, turn brown, and become “crispy”.

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Crispy critters.

Truthfully, I rather like the “dried” form of the Coneflower–to a point.  By mid-to-late July, I begin pruning the flower stalks down to the rosette.  I usually take my pruning cue when a couple of events come into play:  bloom stalks have flopped to the ground; bloom stalks have developed a slight case of mildew and the foliage is wilting and unattractive;  resident and visiting finches have plenty of other seed sources from which to feed on.

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Not only are Purple Coneflowers great for pollinators during bloom time, but the little seed eating birds find them yummy too.  I usually keep some of the “crispy” Cones around into autumn, just because I like the look of the dried flowers in the garden and to feed my feathered friends.  Originally, I kept the spent blooms so that seeds would develop and I’d have more Coneflowers for my gardens.  Trust me when I say, at this point in my life, I have plenty of Coneflowers!!

Once I trim off the spring growth and September rolls around with its shorter days, cooler nights and promises of more of the same, the Purple Coneflowers enjoy a second blooming cycle.  The flower stalks don’t grow as tall, nor do all of the individual rosettes bloom up, but enough of them do, providing for pollinators and birds, and thrilling this gardener again with their perkiness.  The second blooming period ends with the first hard freeze.

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Purple Coneflower plants are tolerant of a wide variety of soil types, but  prefer good draining soil.  My urban garden has a clayey soil type and the Cones have always thrived.   Like most prairie plants, Coneflowers like full sun, but they will bloom in shade, too.  I’ve noticed that the shade Coneflowers sport a paler petal color than their more flamboyant, full sun purple/pink kin.  My gardens are part shade/part sun and I have Coneflowers in every garden bed–they all perform well, though the full sun exposed Cones bloom best, brightest, and longest.

My Purple Coneflowers hail from a $2 packet of seeds from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, purchased over twenty years ago.  These perennials grow well from seed, but four-inch or gallon containers are available, especially in spring, and at knowledgeable local nurseries. Unfortunately, Purple Coneflowers are not deer resistant, so pop them in where the deer can’t nibble them down.

In 2008, I removed the last grass area in my backyard and developed a large, perennial garden in its stead. I planted with seedlings of perennials, including Purple Coneflowers, that had germinated in other parts of my gardens.  In the new garden, I’d planted a few large, back border shrubs and small trees, but I wanted the bulk of the garden to consist of Purple Coneflowers, along with a few companion perennials.  Prior to planting, I wondered if it was possible to have too many Coneflowers. I discovered that it is indeed possible to have too much of a good thing.  While the new garden was stunning during its first Coneflower Palooza spring, once the summer Coneflower crisp set in and I pruned them to the ground, the garden was a bit boring.   I’ve since removed some of the Coneflowers and added other companion plants which bloom at different times of the year.  It was a good lesson:  the well-planned mixed perennial garden is just that–mixed.

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Purple Coneflowers are magnificent in drifts during spring and summer, but they’re best planted for seasonal interest with compatible late summer and autumn flowering, and winter berrying, perennials and shrubs.

Because they’re an excellent wildlife perennial, a hardy Texas (and other places) native, and a pretty, pretty flower, you should plant Purple Coneflowers in your gardens.

Spring

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Summer

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Fall

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Winter

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Bee Mama Missive: Dark or Light?

The girls are at it again!  Buzzing, foraging,

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…occasionally stinging (only when I invade their space), and making masses of ooey, gooey, delicious honey.

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Not long ago, in response to the bees filling up their second boxes and working diligently on combing out their third boxes, Bee Daddy and I decided that it was time to extract some honey from the hives, giving the ladies a bit more elbow room to do their bee thing.

We checked both  Mufasa and Scar and all seems well.

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In fact, they’re growing quite a bit this summer; lots of capped brood and squishy larvae in all sizes.  Both queens are laying eggs out the wazoo for the next generation of workers and this generation of  workers are moving the honey production (and everything else they do) right along.

However….

See these dark, round beetles on the side of the box and scattered amongst the bees on the top?

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They’re Small Hive Beetles, Aethina tumida, an invasive pest of honeybees and scourge of honeybee keepers.  They were obviously skedaddling away as we smoked and opened the hives.  I didn’t even see them in the photo until I was placing the copyright, but the devils were there, planning their evil takeover of the hives.   I’ll be posting more about them another day, but I just wanted you to get a good look at these bad bugs.  BAD BUGS!!

We opened the hives in late June,

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…and saw lots of bee activity and comb galore.

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Gorgeous, honey-filled comb!  I’m hungry.

When we extract, we always leave some full comb and rearrange the bars so that there’s one full bar with comb adjacent to another bar without full comb, in a checkerboard fashion. This gives the girls room to maneuver and work on combs throughout the box.  The checkerboard also allows us easier access when checking the hive.

Because our Warre hives use top bars and no frames, our bees make interesting comb at times.

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This comb looks like the girls just came out of geometry class after learning  how to make circles, and wanted to practice and show off their new skills.

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Extracting comb is messy.  When I do it, anyhow.  This time, some honey spilled. These gals went down in a goo of glory.

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A few bees went for it and, well, a sad end, but what a way to go!

As I gain experience with this beekeeping nonsense, I wised up and rather than cutting the comb and stuffing it into resealable bags, covering myself and everything else in honey, I’m now using reusable plastic containers.

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Duh. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that before, but my life is now easier on extraction days.  Equipment readied,

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…and here’s the final product.  Ta da!!  We extracted just under one gallon of honey.

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Can you guess which is the spring honey?  If you shouted  The left one!!  The left one!!  (and your family members are now looking at you with concern), you’d be right.  Other than bees take honey from different flowers at different times of the year,  I haven’t quite nailed down the reason why our spring honey is lighter and more liquid than the fall honey.  The jar on the right is the last of the fall honey, which we’ve almost finished, and it’s remarkable how different the two kinds are.  Of course, I know what the bees are foraging from my gardens, but they travel upwards to three miles, so I have no idea of the entirety of what makes up the honey product  Funny story: at one of the first beekeeping meetings we attended, another beekeeper mentioned that a local university will test for nectar sources of honey samples.   A friend sent honey to this university and the top nectar source was a non-native plant (I don’t recall what) and the second source was cannabis.  A woman raised her hand and asked where she could buy that honey.

Honey does taste different–depending upon nectar sources and time of year.  Both the fall and spring honey from my darling bees is exquisite–it tastes nothing like what’s  sold at stores.  The fall is richer and thicker and the spring is lighter, more fluid.  I’m guessing that there’s some evolutionary reason behind the thicker fall honey.  After all, the bees create it to sustain themselves during the long winter and it makes sense that fall blooming flowers might have a richer nectar component than at other times of the year.  But truthfully, I have no idea. I’m just going to enjoy both spring and fall honey, weight gain notwithstanding.

After I crush the comb and extract the honey, I always leave it out for the bees to clean up.  They’re quite efficient and gobble every last drop of honey I missed.

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To quote from a favorite movie of mine, said by the character played by James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story  The queen will have bread and honey at the usual time.

Purple Martin Magic

Many people are familiar with the Mexican free-tailed bats who live in and around the Austin area, especially those inhabiting the world’s largest urban bat colony found under the Ann W. Richard Congress Avenue Bridge.  Austinites and tourists thrill at the site of the 1.5 million bats leaving their roost late each summer day for their nightly insect foraging, before migrating to Mexico for winter. Less well-known, but also a remarkable natural event, is the annual migration of the Purple MartinsProgne subis.

Photo courtesy of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology  All About Birds

The Purple Martin is North America’s largest swallow.  Like many other species of birds, they winter in South America, but breed in North America during spring and summer, migrating back and forth during the course of their lives.  Purple Martins are gregarious birds and it’s long  known that they’re comfortable around human habitation. According to the Audubon Society, Native Americans learned that the Martins were valuable assets to their crops and placed hollowed gourds to encourage the Martins to nest nearby.  The Martins chased crows away from crops and vultures away from drying meat.   In modern times, most Purple Martins nest in human provided housing during their breeding season throughout a large area of North America. From July to early August,  they leave their individual nesting sites and converge in enormous roosts preparing for their migration to South America for winter.

Here in Austin,  Purple Martins gather by the hundreds of thousands, roosting in trees along I-35.  Austin is located along one of three major flyways for this Neotropical bird. This year, the birds decided to change things up a bit and instead of roosting in oak trees at Highland Mall, as they have for a couple of years, they’re roosting in trees at the nearby Capital Plaza Shopping Center.

At about 8pm, you can witness a few birds in the air,

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…and a few Austinites on the parking lot, settling into their lawn chairs, getting ready for the show.

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Travis Audubon  hosts Purple Martin Parties on weekend evenings from mid-July to early August and have knowledgeable volunteers ready to answer questions about these cool birds and their life cycle. The evening we visited, one of the volunteers told us that there were an estimated 400,000 birds roosting for the night. It takes a while for the action to kick into gear, but by sundown, there are thousands of birds congregating above the parking lot.

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Swirling in flocks, the Martins fly in unison, flitting into one tree, then another, seemingly indecisive about where to rest their weary beaks for the night.

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The birds are chatty, beautiful and swift flyers, and downright doodee dangerous if you’re standing nearby and don’t hold an umbrella over or sport a hat on your vulnerable head.

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If you know what I mean.

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I always wear a hat when I watch the Martins.

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The Husband didn’t wear a hat this year and he had to wash his hair when we came home that evening.

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If you know what I mean.

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As more birds gather, they swoop and sway in the air and by sundown, many are perched in the trees for the night.

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I ventured closer to get photos of the roosting birds.

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Yes, I was wearing my hat.

It was very windy that particular evening and I had a hard time getting clear shots of the birds in the swaying branches.

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Most of these birds are females and fledgling chicks, though there are males here too. The male Purple Martin is a deep, iridescent purple and the female is more drab in color, with a light gray chest and white tummy.

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Martins are insectivores who fly fast and high, catching prey on the wing.  They feed during the day, resting at night.

I once placed a Purple Martin house on our property, but it was an abject failure at attracting these lovely birds.  Martins like open space in which to fly and hunt and there are too many large trees around my home to attract these birds.  Most Martins nest in human provided houses, though Martin lovers must contend with European Starlings and House Sparrows who will aggressively displace Purple Martins from their homes. Those wishing to attract Martins must be vigilant in removing the invasive birds if they want Martins to breed.  Older, male scout Purple Martins arrive as early as February to check out  nesting sites, followed a few weeks later by the females and the younger males.  They are fun and interesting to observe during their breeding period and fascinating as they prepare for their trip to South America.

Purple Martin magic.

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Ain’t nature grand?

Thanks to the enthusiastic Travis Audubon members who teach others about the importance of birds, to the businesses who encourage visitors to view the roosting Martins, and to the many Purple Martin lovers who host them during breeding season. You’re all part of the solution.

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Have a good migration, Purple Martins, and a safe trip back next February.  Swing by and say “Hi!”.