GARDEN TIP: Saving Purple Coneflower Seeds

Echinacea blooms-1769

Have I got a great gardening tip for you Purple Coneflower fans!  First, if you don’t have coneflowers in the garden, you might want to consider them because the butterflies preferred them to all other butterfly nectar in my garden.

All of my coneflowers were grown from seed. I started with seed packets picked up in seed displays.  All of the seeds were Echinacea purpurea (the botanical name for one species of coneflowers) or improved versions under that name. I planted the seeds in the spring/summer of 2012 and this summer they bloomed.

Learn from one of my many mistakes in the garden:  pay attention to the botanical name on your seed packets. The second botanical name such as Echinacea purpurea can be planted with Echinacea atrorubens or Echinacea paradoxa without fear of cross pollination. However, if you plant several varieties of purpurea together, they will cross. Another species, Echinacea tennesseensis may be a subspecies of purpurea and cross pollination with other tennesseensis and purpureas may happen.

I didn’t know any of this when I planted all of my purpureas together so there is no telling what kind of flowers I will get from all the seeds I have saved in 2013. Sigh. Another failure of the “stoopit’ variety. I once took a local gardening class led by Victoria Freeman who suggested that “when you have a failure, rename it.” Can you imagine the trouble that would create for people like me with memory issues? I can’t remember the stuff I need to remember. Adding a multitude of renamed failures would unravel me.

I should mention that I also learned, via research, that the newer, wild colored hybrids should be bought as plants and multiplied via root expansion or division. Their seeds may not produce “true” when grown out as plants. In other words, you may not get that wild color again.

Some gardeners insist that you must leave the seed cone on the stalk, near the end of the growing season, and allow it to turn brown to black before collecting the cone. I didn’t like this idea because (1) I didn’t want the birds to beat me to the seeds, and (2) I wanted to save seeds from the biggest flowers during the entire season. According to Garden Smart and William Cullina, Plant and Garden Curator of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, “the seed is ripe when the cone dries out … and the bristles turn dark brown and rather sharp and spiny.” I’m going to go with that until I am proven wrong by experimentation. In other words, I harvested the cones as they started to dry out on the plant and then left them in a clay pot on the porch to finish drying out.

Okay, the Garden Tip. Tonya Fennig publishes a Facebook page called The Seed Exchange and shared a way to save one’s fingers from getting poked by the spiny head of the cones.

After collecting the seed cones, take a large darning needle to gently pluck away at the cone.

Echinacea w darning needle-165-2
Photo credit: Tonya
Photo credit: Tonya
Photo credit: Tonya

I found that I had to dig a little, at the top of the cone stem, to get things started. First, the needle was digging out a dark brown thing that looks like a seed but is only chaff (bottom right of photo). Later, I was getting a few of those same brown things with the seed attached (upper right of photo). Finally, the yellowish-tan seeds shaped like an arrowhead began spilling from the seed cone (bottom left of photo).

Seeds, seeds with chaff still attached, chaff
Seeds, seeds with chaff still attached, chaff

Make sure to get as many of the seeds as you can (to share with your friends) and then toss the seed cone into your flower garden as winter food for the birds, who will find all the seeds you missed.

Tonya says the darning needle method might not be the correct way to separate the seeds but I’m telling you, it worked for me!