Just look at this old favorite now

With the help of researchers and plant breeders from around the world, a native prairie flower is being reinvented. The coneflower, a traditional garden mainstay, recently has emerged as a front-and-center garden attraction.

Native exclusively to North America, coneflower (Echinacea) species are primarily found in the Midwestern and Eastern United States. A member of the aster family, it's well known, especially the purple coneflower (E. purpurea) with its magenta petals.

The plant's many desirable qualities - hardiness, long bloom period, drought tolerance - have led to the introduction of new varieties that gardeners are finding hard to resist. Researchers have broadened the coneflower color palette to include raspberry red, orange, and mango.

They have selected for flowers that are larger, double, or double-decker. They have even intensified the coneflower's fragrance. Imagine walking through a coneflower meadow, the scent of honeysuckle or spiced tea wafting through the air.

Jim Ault, director of ornamental plant research at the Chicago Botanic Garden, has been at the center of the coneflower breeding effort. By crossing cultivated coneflowers with those collected in the wild, Dr. Ault and his research staff have worked to combine the superior ornamental traits from commercially developed plant varieties with traits for adaptability and vigor from wild plants.

The program's first new introduction was the Orange Meadowbrite coneflower last year, followed by this year's introduction of Mango Meadowbrite, both of which are shades of orange, a color not before seen in a coneflower.

Hybridization can be a long process

"Plant breeding is part science, part artistry," says Ault. "A breeder paints in his or her mind an image of what may result from a line of breeding, then applies science to achieve that ambition."

Six years ago, he began crossbreeding Echinacea species to create hybrids and then crossed these hybrids. In total, he made 96 crosses between the species.

To create Orange Meadowbrite, Ault crossed Echinacea purpurea, a daisylike flower with a central cone surrounded by petal-like ray flowers, with Echinacea paradoxa, which has yellow petals and is the only Echinacea species that does not bloom in tints of purple or white.

The first step was to cover the female plants with a clear plastic isolation bag that allowed air to enter but stopped pollen-bearing insects. Ault then brought pollen from a male plant and applied it with an artist's paintbrush to the flowers on the central disk's flowers of the female plant.

The first seeds were collected in fall 1998 and produced 200 plants with purplish-pink blooms the following summer. Third-generation crosses of these plants yielded a mélange of plants with ray flowers ranging from white with red bases to gold, tangerine, peach, and flame orange.

"All of my plant breeding is 'old school,' accomplished by moving pollen around, collecting seed, and then germinating them," says Ault. "There is still room in ornamental horticulture for traditional plant breeding."

While these new plants are on the wish lists of many gardeners, Jodi Schaffer has been acquiring the unique varieties almost as soon as they become available - even purchasing hard-to-find ones on eBay.

"I fell in love with the Razzmatazz coneflower when I saw it on the cover of a garden catalog two years ago," says Ms. Schaffer, who gardens in Emmaus, Pa. "I tried to order three days after receiving the catalog, but they were all sold out."

Schaffer would recommend most of those flowers to fellow gardeners. Her orange coneflower "shines a mile away." And Razzmatazz? "[They're] even better than the photos in the catalog."

One of her favorite new varieties is Doppelganger, named for the German word meaning "double walker." True to its name, the Doppelganger coneflower is topped by a smaller matching flower sprouting from the top of its cone.

"Most gardeners are looking for something different, something no one else has," says Schaffer. That "something different" may be as subtle as a new fragrance, an unexpected coneflower trait that Ault and others have enhanced through their breeding efforts.

"I did not have fragrance as a goal at all when I first started breeding coneflowers," Ault says, "as I had personally never encountered fragrance in the genus, nor had I seen this mentioned in the literature. The greatest surprise I have encountered was the wonderful fragrance of the Orange Meadowbrite coneflower."

For every gardener's favorite, there may be hundreds of plants that preceded it in research labs around the world. Only a small percentage of plants make the final grade of commercial worthiness.

Of the almost 15,000 plants he has chosen to continue growing over the past 10 years, "perhaps 10 to 20 of these plants will actually be released to the marketplace," says Ault. "An equal or slightly greater number could potentially be marketed, but I am holding them back as being too similar to a plant already in cultivation, or knowing that I may come up with an even better plant in the next generation."

Looking to the future

In between the marketable plants and those that are discarded are the dozens of plants that are kept as the building blocks of his breeding program. These plants may not be worthy of introduction, but are crucial in the development of the garden- worthy plants because they carry the genes for novel flower colors, fragrance, compact habits, etc.

What's coming next? A raspberry sherbet-colored dwarf coneflower, with compact habit and profuse blooms, is set for introduction in 2006. In following years, gardeners can anticipate shades of red, apricot, and white coneflowers to be introduced through his breeding program.

Ault is also working on hybridizing four other genera that are native to the United States: Asclepias (milkweed), Baptisia (false indigo), Liatris(blazing star), and Penstemon (bearded tongue). Up first will be a purple bicolor Baptisia, and then a new chocolate-colored selection.

Recent coneflower introductions

Echinacea Orange Meadowbrite The first coneflower with orange blooms has four-inch flowers and a sweet scent.

E. Mango Meadowbrite Mango-yellow rays surround a golden orange cone. Flowers have a honeysuckle-like fragrance.

E. purpurea Doppelganger This coneflower is topped by a smaller flower sprouting from the top of its cone.

E. purpurea Prairie Frost A variegated plant with pronounced silver edges on the leaves.

E. purpurea Razzmatazz A double-blooming variety that has a thick pompon of a pink flower sitting atop a skirt of traditional coneflower petals.

E. purpurea Ruby Giant Six-inch-wide flowers with bright-pink upcurved petal tips.

E. purpurea Vintage Wine A shade of deep raspberry, the petals are held horizontally, unlike petals of the species, which droop downward.

The recent coneflower introductions are in limited supply this year, but some will be available in retail garden centers. Mail-order sources include Jackson & Perkins,www.jacksonandperkins.com; Song Sparrow, www.songsparrow.com; Wayside Gardens, www.waysidegardens.com; and White Flower Farm, www.whiteflowerfarm.com.

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