A coneflower by any other name, wouldn’t be as … purple?

There once was a plant with a cone-shaped flower with long, cascading purple petals. It was classified as Echinacea purpurea, commonly known as Purple Coneflower. Depending on your perspective on color, the petals might have been described as pink, but could most certainly fall under a “purple-ish” classification.

Coneflowers have always been one of my favorites, in the garden and as the subject of my lens. When I got my first Nikon CoolPix 950 digital camera back in 1999, I took a picture of a coneflower and the result ignited my passion for botanical photography.

In 1999 and for a long time before, it was considered a prairie flower, right along with Rudbeckia and Baptisia. Then, all of a sudden it seems, the gardening world was overjoyed to welcome “native plants” into the home garden, and Echinacea and its prairie cousins became stars.

And we all know what happens when a plant becomes popular. The hybridizers start falling over themselves to conceive the next great cultivar of the popular plant. They strive for longer bloom time, larger flowers, and — of course — different colors. And that’s how a plant with purple in its name now comes in a spectrum of red, pink, orange and white and causes great confusion to casual gardeners who buy a “purple” coneflower only to find out it’s the color of tomato soup or macaroni and cheese.

Just this year, I’ve found a number of varieties of Echinacea purpurea that don’t fall anywhere near purple in the color spectrum.

‘White Swan’
  ‘Tiki Torch’
 ‘Pink Poodle’
‘Tomato Soup’
Now, I’m not complaining in the least about the dazzling array of Echinacea that are available for gardeners today. Once the price comes down on some of these newer varieties like ‘Tomato Soup’ and ‘Mac ‘n Cheese’ (now currently in the $15-$25 range per plant), they’ll be lighting up my garden for summers to come. But the exploding rainbow of coneflowers on the market today does make me wonder if including color descriptions in the botanical epithet or common name of plants is as shortsighted as planting cotton north of Dixie.

Published by Christopher Tidrick

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