Back away from the coneflowers

Echinacea purpureaYou see them there, looking vaguely sinister in near-black silhouette, projecting explosions of spikiness. So it’s totally understandable that you might want to wade into your garden bed, armed with a sturdy pair of pruners, and give your coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) the big snip. Hey, you’re making the garden tidier and, let’s face it, friendlier looking.

But this fall, try leaving them be. Here’s why.

Sure, these lovelies have long left the building after giving the psychedelic flower show to end all shows. But now they’ve actually got a second act going on that’s the epitome of stealthy elegance.

According to Frank Kershaw, a Toronto-based master gardener, the tall, stiff stems and seed heads create a canopy, a sort of support system, for protecting the plant’s tender crown as snow starts to pile up through the winter.

They’re also offering an aerial banquet for goldfinches. And what doesn’t get eaten gets scattered so that you’ve got even more splashes of eye-searing colour in your flower beds next summer.

And if you’re thinking of giving the seedheads a good shake to collect the seeds and store them indoors until next spring, keep this in mind. In a recent conversation with Wildflower Farm doyenne and author of Taming Wildflowers, Miriam Goldberger, she reminded me that seeds like those from Echinacea purpurea need to go through winter’s brutal freeze/thaw to kick start the growing process. Here’s how she explains it, so eloquently in her book:

When a wildflower seed drops to the ground in the fall, it will start out on the surface of the soil, being gently covered with falling leaves, petals and other natural debris; throughout the winter the weight of the snow presses the seed down into the soil. In the spring, as snow melts, the earth draws the seed further downward. As the soil warms up, the damp seed’s hard shell will have deteriorated enough to allow the tiny cotyledon to germinate.

So it’s a win-win: Less work for you, more flowers for the garden.

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