Coneflower time

Rosa 'All Ablaze' blazes cherry red in Burke Brothers' Tuscany exhibit, accenting classic Italian elements with bright flowers. (Ron Tarver / Staff photographer)

It's coneflower time! For the next couple of weeks, these Echinacea purpurea - purple coneflowers - will be looking fabulous. Then the deadheading begins and the patch looks scruffy. At the end of the summer I leave the seedheads on to feed the birds. But wait - this morning I saw two goldfinches cavorting in here. That was a precious sight. I'm in a coneflower frame of mind these days for another reason, having visited the Mt. Cuba Center outside Wilmington this week to check in on an echinacea evaluation they've been doing for the last three years. Any gardener with a pulse has noticed the proliferation of coneflowers on the market, more every year. Besides the traditional purple/pink and white, we now have reds, oranges, yellows and shades in between like melon and tangerine. And they all have such luscious names and hues, it's hard to resist.

I've heard a lot of complaints about the newer ones, that they don't hold up from year to year or even stand up straight as these old standbys do in my photo. This has been my experience, as well, so much so that I decided in future to resist the temptation to spend any more on the new varieties.

But this Mt. Cuba study may be a mind-changer. They're testing dozens of plants for things like flower size and quantity, stem sturdiness, height/width, hardiness and tolerance for disease and pests. Sometime later this year the results will be announced, but if you read my story on Friday, July 10, you'll get a preview of the top dozen or so.

Who doesn't love these plants? They're beautiful, tough, native (at least to North America) perennials that attract butterflies, bees and birds, like the goldfinches in my garden this morning. But it'll be good to know which of the newcomers is worth adding to our collection. It's the only way to go: Let someone else spend the money, do the road test, then hand you the keys.