Part of the Story

A plant near the pond, this Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, opens its lavender petals for welcomed business.

Then a pollinator lands. Busy and beautiful, this Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio glaucus, sips nectar from the blooms before moving on to other plants also offering sustenance.

One event in the longer story of a garden.

What’s your garden’s story? Linking today with Flutter and Hum and its Wednesday Vignette. Happy gardening!

Left by Leafhoppers

I’m a tolerant sort towards insects in the garden. Insects get a bad rap, but many are good guys-n-gals and fulfill important roles in the ecosystem. Other insects are meh–not necessarily anyone’s favorites, but not problematic, either. A very few insects are monsters and no gardener wants to see the beasts messing up their slice of paradise. I’ll squish aphids if they’re covering foliage but I don’t use insecticides at all. When I garden for vegetables (a rare thing these days), I’ll spray water on plants to knock off aphids or other sucking insects, but most of my veggie garden problems come from birds and squirrels; they like their veggies, too, one bite at a time.

Because I prefer native perennials and shrubs, as well as non-native plants who’ve proven their worth in the challenging conditions of Central Texas, I don’t have many malevolent insects wreaking havoc on beloved plants. That is until this spring.

Along with all the other weird things that 2021 has delivered to my garden, it’s finally also experienced damage due to some naughty bugs and the bad germs they carry and spread.

I love Purple Coneflowers, Echinacea purpurea. I don’t grow quite as many as I once did, due to shady conditions because these cheery aster plants are sun lovers! But I still have some and enjoy the beauty they bring to the garden.

Coneflowers are a favorite among the pollinators and frequently have one in attendance.

Grey Hairstreak, Strymon melinus nectaring on a Purple Coneflower

My native coneflowers bloom from April until July, turning crispy and dropping seed during the hot summer months. Once they’re tired and worn out, I prune the plants to their base foliage and await the fall bloom, which is less dramatic, but very welcome.

Recently, I was observing some pollinator action and taking photos of this charming group of coneflowers, when I noticed an oddity.

Some of my coneflower sported leafy green hats!

Other mini-leaves covered the whole of the central globe, hiding the bracts where coneflower seeds develop. Also, the lavender rays were weird, short and misshapen.

As I looked at groups of coneflowers in other parts of the garden, I found more crazy coneflowers. Some had no purple or pink to them, they were all green: green centers, green rays, and a few green, strangely shaped leaves. The diseased plants were all shorter than the healthy coneflowers.

This discovery of individual bizarre coneflowers rang a botanical bell for me, though I’d never seen this kind of growth before in my garden. I recognized (from some reading, sometime in the past) that the deformed coneflowers were victims of a disease process and recalled that it is one brought on by an insect.

As I researched the problem, I came across the term Aster Yellows, and remembered reading other gardeners who’d removed their aster plants (not necessarily coneflowers) because of this disease. Removing the diseased plant is the only recourse and those plants shouldn’t be placed in compost, but disguarded from the garden completely.

Leafhoppers are common in my garden and I would normally place them in the meh category of insects; they’re around, but don’t present much of a problem. It seems that leafhoppers survived our February snowpocalypse and in early spring, at least a few of those leafhoppers carrying a mycoplasma engaged in some munching on the emerging coneflower plants. The mycoplasma which causes the unusual growth is spread by the leafhoppers feeding on the plants. Fortunately, only a few individual plants were impacted. You can see one in this photo at the base of a gloriously healthy plant.

Coneflowers are in the Asteraceae or Aster family, but many kinds of plants are affected by this mycoplasma disease process. According to Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, Texas Plant Disease Handbook, Aster Yellows impacts 300 different species of plants, from over 40 different families of plants.

I haven’t seen any more obvious problems with my remaining coneflowers (or any other plants), but it’s likely that next spring this issue may appear again. I’ll be quicker at diagnosing and removing the sick plants now that I’m aware that my garden could be hosting the insects and their germs.

Because of the devastating February freeze, a large shade tree died in my front garden and it will be removed in late fall. As well, my Red Oak trees in the back garden have also suffered some freeze damage; less foliage means more sun in my back garden. I’m sorry about the trees–trees are life giving entities–but more sun will mean more coneflowers in the garden. I just hope they’re all healthy next year and will continue to provide for food pollinators and joy for the gardener.

Coyote Cloudywing, Achalarus toxeus, resting on the rays of a Coneflower

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

A favorite of all kinds of bees and butterflies.

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

…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.

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.

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.

As well, some are typical daisy-ray flowers,

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.