Gardens Invaded by Colorful Coneheads! They’re Not from France!


     by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden



I have always been a proponent of our native wildflowers – I tramp along the wildflower trails along with countless other shutterbugs and plant enthusiasts every springtime. From early March to mid-April, when the Bluebonnets and Paintbrush are at their peak, it can get down right congested on some of our otherwise rural routes. However, by May, the parade has packed up and moved on, leaving the late spring flowers to wonder where the party has gone. That’s too bad, because there are plenty of worthy wildflowers that carry the torch of spring forward well into those first hot weeks of the year.


In my own garden, I have created a bed that features many of these mid-late season stars. I call it my “conehead bed” because I have included many flowers with prominent “discs” or “cones,” like the Purple Coneflower (Echinacea.) In reality, I should call it my “composite” flower bed, for most of the plants are members of what botanists call the Compositae family. Composite flowers are really two kinds of flowers in one - daisies are a classic example – they are composed (get it?) of both “disk” flowers and “ray” flowers. To casual observers they look like one single bloom, but close examination reveals hundreds of individual flowers with a singular appearance.


Anyway, enough plant geek talk. My conehead bed blooms its little multi-faceted heart out from May into summer and I can’t imagine my garden without its happy burst of color. The soil in my bed is well prepared with a high percentage of screened granite to improve the drainage, ideal conditions for most of these plants, though they seem to perform splendidly in a wide variety of sunny settings.


The various forms of Coreopsis add a strong yellow component to my composite/coneflower confabulation. There are many forms of this vigorous perennial; my favorites are the big boys that can stand their ground against the other robust contenders I have chosen. Lanceleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) is the most popular of the native versions of this yellow daisy and can create beautiful two-three foot high mounds covered with hundreds of blooms. This plant not only spreads by division, it also seeds out, and so, you will always have an abundance of new plants to share with friends every spring.


There are quite a few cultivars of coreopsis on the market and most are highly regarded. The “Baby Sun” and “Sunray” varieties with their more compact forms (one-two feet tall) are the most popular of these. Here in Austin, I’d avoid “Moonbeam” which all of the garden books rave about, but that has always been kind of wimpy for me.


I am crazy about the various members of the Echinacea tribe – the so-called Purple Coneflowers. I say “so-called” because I have always thought of them as being kind of a rosy pink, not purple, and one of my favorite varieties is actually white, so go figure. The star performer of the Echinaceas in my garden is a relatively new entry called “Lynn Lowrey.” This tall (two-three feet,) aggressive plant is named for one of the patron saints of the Texas native plant movement, a much beloved and greatly missed spirit whose crazy quilt nursery in Conroe used to be a place of pilgrimage for folks like me. The Lynn Lowrey Echinacea is a selection of the native Coneflower and has particularly deep hued petals offset by a golden-green cone. Butterflies absolutely mob this plant when it is in bloom and the color looks great mixed with the yellow of the coreopsis and the white flowered form of Echinacea know as “White Swan.”


Zexmania (Wedelia or Zexmania hispida) has to be one of my favorite flower names of all time. This is a shrubby perennial that usually only grows only a foot or so tall when you see it growing in the caliche soils of the Hill Country, but it can stretch to three feet in deeper soils like mine. I like the orangey-yellow glow of its little daisy-like blooms and its complete ease of cultivation.  Over the course of several seasons, I struggled to find an orange toned plant to round out my collection of coneheads and this guy really has done the job. Besides, how could you resist inviting a little Zexmania into your backyard?


The Rudbeckias, or “Black-eyed Susans” are another disparate and desirable group of plants for the coneheaded among us. There are many native forms, but I favor their cousins - the perennial “Goldsturm” (Rudbeckia fulgida) and the annual varieties sold under a variety of names including “Sonora,” “Indian Summer,” or “Rustic Colors” (Rudbeckia hirtas, all.) Goldsturm is a highly awarded selection that provides a dependable mass of color. I am very partial to its combination of strong clear yellow petals and dark black cones.  The annual forms are very showy with petals that range from yellow to black and rusty brown. In my garden they re-seed themselves and come back every year.


Don’t let your wildflower fever fade with the first frightful heat. Fight back with your own composition of coneheads!


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