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!


Lee McDonald's terrariums

The Duval County Extension Agent put on another fabulous event Saturday, February 25th from 9:00 until 2:30. It was called A Day of Gardening and I’ve got to give their secretary, Becky Davidson, some major kudos for organizing our registration packets, by name, with the Agenda glued to the front of the 9×12 envelope and all of our color-coded handouts inside. That must have been some job preparing 300 of those.

Not always being of sound mind, I referred to that Agenda throughout the day to help me figure out where I was supposed to be and when I was supposed to be there. In between lectures, I would visit the vendors who were arranged around the perimeter of the auditorium.

Terry DelValle gave a short, informative lecture on Attracting Beneficial Insects which prompted me to buy the University of Florida’s bug book for vegetable gardeners. It was a tad pricey at $12 BUT it was bound with two one-inch rings allowing it to lie flat when open. The color photos were on heavy, coated card stock a mere 3 inch by 4 inch which meant you could haul the book out to the garden and compare the photo to the bug on your tomato bush and then tuck the book in your garden apron or jeans pocket.  Any garden book identifying bugs or wild mushrooms should be done this way.

Victoria Freeman was up next to tell us a thing or two about Permaculture. A former school teacher now running a bed and breakfast on the St. Johns River, she often treated us like third graders by making us put our heads on the table and holding our fingers up to vote. Anyone not playing along was admonished, “Heads down” and she would not proceed until all heads were down. She was absolutely hilarious and the star of the show.  She had a lot of material that she had to run through far too quickly for my pea-sized brain to comprehend but I did make note of a few frugal tips she had because, as you know, I am, for the most part, dropping out of the consumer culture because of strong feelings that corporate lack of loyalty towards American workers should not be rewarded. Frugal Tip No. 1 – you can make a solar collector from one of those silver sun visors for car windshields. Frugal Tip No. 2 – you can start a “pocket garden” in one of those cloth grocery bags you get at the grocery store for 99 cents.

Our first Breakout Session started at 11:00. When pre-registering, we chose between Organic Vegetable Gardening, Water Conservation and Container Gardening.

Lunch was provided – a sandwich, bag of chips and cookie – but forty-five minutes was not near enough time to get 300 people through one food line with enough time to eat considering their habit of staying on schedule.

The second Breakout Session started at 12:30 with Tomato Varieties and Growing Tips, Caring for Palms and Terrariums on the menu. I chose Terrariums with Lee McDonald, a Master Gardener, mostly because I didn’t know anything about it and it might come in handy to know a thing or two if my succulent seeds make it past the two-leaf stage. He taped gold coins to the floor under some of the chairs which the chair holder exchanged for a bag of ultra-special terrarium dirt. He swore up and down that two of the coins were not redeemed which had a half dozen of us scurrying around the room tipping chairs because, after all, free dirt is free dirt to a gardener.

The last lecture was on Exceptional Plants for Northeast Florida by Chuck Hubbuch. When his lecture was over I bolted for the door. I realize they wanted to keep an auditorium of 300 people comfortable but I was frozen to the core. I missed a rare February day of sun by going to this shindig and luckily my car had been roasting in the sun. It was probably 85 degrees inside the car but it felt really, really good after a day of polar bear treatment. According to the thermometer readout on my dash, the outside temperature was 61 degrees. Now I ask you, WHY would they blow arctic air over us all day long when the outside temperature had risen to a meager 61 degrees by 2:30 in the afternoon? That is the third time I’ve been cold in that auditorium, the last two times I was miserably cold, and they’ve just about torn it with me. Yes, their classes are excellent. Yes, their classes are good value for the money spent but I don’t like coming out with my internal organs riddled with icicles. I’ve already registered for their chicken thing this Tuesday night but I’m not certain I will go.