Sparkling new dwarf spring irises
Australian pelargonium found wild in Britain

The day our echinaceas died

Echinacea 'Flame Thrower' © Terra Nova Nurseries
The day the echinaceas died... It was yesterday. And this is how it happened.

Echinaceas, coneflowers, and especially all the fancy hybrids that have come on the market recently, like ‘Flame Thrower’ (above) and all the doubles (below), hate bad drainage in winter. That’s what kills them. But yesterday that’s exactly what they got.

On Sunday night the temperature in our garden here in Pennsylvania went down to -10F (-23C). So, after a temperature almost as low the night before, and low temperatures for a few days before that, the ground was frozen solid to a depth it was hard to assess.

And then it snowed. Not a lot, just a couple of inches and the whole garden looked lovely. But then, yesterday, Monday, it got warmer. A whole lot warmer, and quickly. By early afternoon the temperature had risen to 48F (9C), and the snow had melted and the top inch or two of soil had thawed out as well.

But because the soil was frozen down deep, all the melted snow just sat there on the surface, in puddles – it could not drain away because the soil underneath it was frozen. Our borders were covered in pools of water, yesterday, and they’re still there this morning.

And in those puddles of thawed snow are the crowns of our last remaining echinaceas (this has happened before...) – and echinaceas hate bad drainage. So those last few may well die.

Of course, this is not a phenomenon that comes into play in Britain all that much, or in parts of the USA where the winters bring less ferocious frosts. Because if the soil is not so solidly frozen, melted snow drains away and impacts much less on our, rather sensitive, echinaceas.

But here's what's important: it reminds us that, wherever we garden, it’s bad drainage in winter that prevents us enjoying the vast range of exciting new echinaceas for years and years after we first planted them. Which is a shame, because they really are gorgeous. As you can see.

Double echinaceas from Marco van Noort. ©Luc Klinkhamer


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Kathryn Marsh

That's why I've stopped trying to grow them in my sodden Irish frost pocket Graham. I'm so sorry you've had the same experience. As you say, there are wonderful new varieties coming out these days.

Graham Rice

Well, Kathryn, echinaceas that are more or less pure E. purpurea and not hybrids - 'Magnus Improved', 'Elton Knight', 'Kim's Knee High' - are definitely more resilient and in gardens without the penetrating frost we have here in PA often do well in a raised bed.


Succulents do the same thing - that's why it's absolutely crucial to have perfectly draining soil.

I'm so amazed at all the different kinds of Echinacea - they are really the most amazing plants!

Graham Rice

The trouble is, Jacki, that in the sort of season we've had, even if the soil usually drains well if it's frozen a few inches down drainage is blocked.


I have a wide variety of echs... from the standard to the fancier hybrids. I am in southern ohio, so we get the wide swings of weather as well through winter. Since our soil is just solid fill clay, I had originally amended the bed down a foot or so to increase drainage. I haven't had any problems keeping the newer echs of any cross. The only thing I avoid is buying any late in the season sale table rescues... they just don't make it through winter. The second this is to never buy any plant that just has a single stem without many basal growth points. Even if the plant is in a gallon pot with a ton of great looking blooms on top and leaves coming from that single stem... if it doesn't have the basal growth... it just doesn't bulk up enough by winter... even if you plant in the spring.
It's really a shame because the plants now have a bad reputation for winter issues. The nursery trade is instructed to remove all blooms on young plug plants that they get to force the plant to bulk up... but that just takes more time from them to raise them properly... and slow sales for a season.

Graham Rice

That's very interesting, Matt, thank you. Good advice about choosing individual specimens carefully.

I remember when I visited Bob Brown's nursery in Worcestershire UK a few years ago ( and when the Echinacea craze was getting started, he had most of his perennials in pots standing out on stock beds in the usual way. But the pots of echinaceas he had standing up off the ground on slats so that excess moisture could drain away easily. It made a huge difference.

Al Krismer

Try the new Cheyenne Spirit mixed-- a hybrid from seed. Same color range as the other E. purpurea-E. paradoxa hybrids from tissue culture but much more vigorous and more winter hardy.

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