It’s the middle of winter, and the seed and plant catalogues have been arriving in the mailbox, providing the only bright spots of color to Northern gardeners tired of gazing upon a monochromatic world. How easy it is to be enticed by the images and descriptions of plants. You remember to include plants for wildlife in any purchases you make this year, including coneflowers (Echinacea species). Coneflowers are valuable nectar sources for bees and butterflies, and the seeds are eaten by goldfinches, so you decide to add some to your garden. You turn to the coneflower listings and find a plethora of colors and forms.
(Image Courtesy of Mary Ann of Gardens of the Wild, Wild West.)
Look at those yellows, reds and oranges! And the double forms are out of this world! Stop — back away from the catalogue or the mouse. Have a drink of cold water and settle down.
I’m sorry to inform you that those amazing new coneflowers are not the way to go if you want to plant for wildlife. These newer types of Echinaceas are a lower quality food source than the species. For an anecdotal example, take a look at a video I made of bees and coneflowers in my Nanoprairie. These cultivars aren’t just naturally occurring variations, but are the result of deliberate crosses between different species of Echniacea which are propagated by tissue culture. Many of these cultivars are sterile, meaning no seeds for the hungry birds. Even worse are the doubled forms, which confuse pollinators and make it hard for butterflies to land on them. Scientists have learned that, in general, doubled flower forms do not provide the food value to wildlife as the single forms.
If you feel you must have one of these crazy new cultivars, just make sure you have plenty of the straight species of coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, E. pallida, E. tennesseensis, and E. paradoxa. The wildlife will thank you.
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