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French garden: choose drought tolerant daisies and echinacea

Cathy Thompson tells us why she is hooked on the grassland plants of the North American prairie

Yellow Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Black eyed Susan’ and white Echinacea purpurea 'White Swan' Pic: rontav / Shutterstock

Echinacea have to be divided regularly, since most of the cultivars you’ll come across are not as long-lived as you’d like. 

I used to have some rather lovely specimens of Echinacea ‘White Swan’ (pictured), one of my favourites in this very drought-tolerant genus. 

That is, until I read in a French gardening magazine that I ‘should’ divide them in July. 

The outcome was fairly predictable…they died. If only I’d used my common sense! 

For Echinacea, spring is the best time to divide, since they are prone to root rots and mollusc damage over winter. 

Read more: Five drought management tips for gardens from a French plant expert

Read more: Rainwater, wells - eight questions about water restrictions in France

Survive drought and wet weather

I replaced my plants quickly, having already fallen in love – and I’m now in the process of adding every available echinacea I can lay my hands on. 

Not only do they survive summer drought, but the stronger types keep going in winter-wet clay. 

It’s a genus that has only become popular in the last twenty-five years, owing to the breeding attention it suddenly received in the US back in the 1990s. 

One imagines that its adoption by the new perennial planting movement, typified by Piet Oudolf, encouraged plant breeders to continue with their imaginative meddling. 

Take a hint from nature

The intention of this style is to mimic the grassland of the North American prairie, where the daisy family reigns supreme in late summer. 

That’s a massive hint from nature to gardeners: late-flowering daisies often make an excellent choice for the summer-dry garden. 

Choose coreopsis, rudbeckia, silphium and helianthus if you want the classic yellow or orange daisy flower – but rely on echinacea for their purples.

Aside from their purple colouring, the pronounced central cone makes them stand out amongst most of the other daisies. 

Covered in spiky scales, it gives the flower its Latin name, derived from the Greek for hedgehog or sea urchin – ‘echinos’. 

And these fascinating cones make echinacea sweet feeding for every butterfly that passes, as well as great favourites of feasting birds in winter.

Why are echinacea so tough and garden-worthy? 

Their value, in our gardens, comes from their late flowering: in the wild they must compete with grasses and this delays their flowering season. 

Their grassland habitat has endowed them with strong stems (no need for support in the garden!) and characteristically deep rooting to compete with their neighbours – they will gradually form thick, spreading colonies in the right conditions.   

In their prairie homeland, echinacea are hardy to -10 or -15 degrees centigrade, although normally covered by snow in winter, which keeps them dry. 

Slugs and snails can therefore be a real menace in a winter-wet French garden, such as mine. 

If you live further south you are more ideally suited to please a coneflower.

Strong varieties to try

I’ve read that the strongest plants are those with broader leaves, and certainly, if you think of the ‘classic’, longest-lived types of purple coneflower – for example ‘Magnus’, ‘Ruby Giant’, or Piet Oudolf’s 2004 introduction, ‘Vintage Wine’ – they do seem to prove the point.  

There are other fine whites apart from ‘White Swan’. Try the broader-petalled flowers of ‘Virgin’, with a green centre and green shading at the tips of the petals. 

Or the charming, narrowly spoon-shaped petals of ‘White Spider’. 

I’d also like to try some of the rather cunning greens as well – such as delicious ‘Green Envy’ with rather upswept green petals, tinged more purple at their bases and a brownish-purple cone. 

Or flatter-faced ‘Green Jewel’, whose green cone will glow among the standard purples of its siblings.

Crosses to produce ‘sunset’ colours are more delicate 

Since these plants stepped into the spotlight, we’ve seen an increasing interest in what I call the ‘sunset’ colours, involving crosses between E. paradoxa – the only yellow echinacea – and E. purpurea

I’ve found that these sunset types don’t put up much of a fight on my heavy clay soil during winter, so perhaps this tap-rooted species is a little more delicate than fibrous-rooted E. purpurea and has passed on its slightly delicate constitution to its descendants?

Some in the sunset group are stronger than others. 

Yellow ‘Leilani’ seems built to last, according to plant trials in the UK, although not as easy to come by as others in France. 

I’ve also had some success with seedlings from the ‘Mellow Yellows’ seed strain.  

More hopeful than the sunset colours, in terms of staying power, are the very recent hybrids between echinacea and rudbeckia, called Echibeckia. 

Since orange hues are the strength of the rudbeckia, we should see ever more interesting colours cropping up in the years to come.

Hooked on prairie planting

Now that I’m hooked, I’m experimenting with different species and have become overly fond of the graceful, very drooping petals of pale pink Echinacea pallida. Although it may well hale from damper meadows than E. purpurea, since it seems less tolerant of a dry summer. 

Have fun and do remember their prairie habitat. 

Try playing with some American prairie grasses, as well as the usual European favourites: ‘big bluestem’ (Andropogon gerardii) and ‘little bluestem’ (Schizachyrium scoparium), as well as shorter ‘prairie dropseed’ (Sporobolus heterolepis) – are easily grown from seed.   

What has your biggest gardening disaster been, as a result of following ‘expert’ advice? Email Cathy at editor@connexionfrance.com 

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