FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Echinacea tennesseensis ‘Rocky Top’ is a sturdy low maintenance perennial. Plants form sprawling clumps of narrow foliage. In summer starry flowers bear whorls of clear pink rays. The narrow upturned rays surround deep brownish cones that are loaded with disc flowers. Although rare in the wild, this species adapts easily to sunny well drained gardens.
HABITAT & HARDINESS: Echinacea tennesseensis was believed to be extinct until it was rediscovered in the 1960s. Current known populations occur in about 5 locations in three counties of central Tennessee near Nashville. The species was listed as federally endangered from 1979 until 2011.
Plants are endemic to limestone soils in cedar glades, dry rocky hills or barrens.
The ‘Rocky Top’ hybrid seed strain was introduced by Jelitto Seed in 2003.
Plants are hardy from USDA Zones 5-9.
PLANT DESCRIPTION: Echinacea tennesseensis ‘Rocky Top’ is a durable long-lived perennial with a sturdy tap root.
Stems are pubescent with leathery linear or lance shaped leaves. The blades are dark green, pubescent and entire.
Flower orientation is similar to a sunflower. Rays extend out from the cone instead of being reflexed like those of E. purpurea. Heads are held almost perpendicular to the ground. They face east and tend to follow the sun.
The 2-3” heads are solitary with reddish-pink widely spaced rays. The rays are narrow and are usually slightly upturned causing the flower head to have a slightly cupped shape. The spiny cone is a dark purplish or brownish color and is made of many disc florets.
For about a month in summer bees and butterflies flock to the flowers. Prickly clusters of dark achenes form after flowering and remain into early winter.
Plants grow 2-2.5’ tall with 1-2’ spread.
CULTURAL & MAINTENANCE NEEDS: The ideal site for Echinacea tennesseensis ‘Rocky Top’ has full sun and a lean well drained soil. Plants tolerate part sun but are less robust and less floriferous.
Established plants endure drought, humidity and heat. They are pest resistant and tolerant of poor soils and alkaline pH.
Deadheading can extend the season of bloom.
LANDSCAPE USES: This is a good choice for a Wildlife Garden or Cut Flower Garden. This cultivar should ideally be situated to the west side of garden paths so that the lovely flower faces will be turned toward the viewer. Plants are useful Accents, Butterfly Nectar Plants or components of Groupings or Mass Plantings. Echinacea tennesseensis ‘Rocky Top’ has Showy Blooms and is appropriate for Cottage Gardens, Water-wise Landscapes, Low Maintenance Plantings and Perennial Borders.
COMPANION & UNDERSTUDY PLANTS: Try pairing Echinacea tennesseensis ‘Rocky Top’ with other glade and prairie residents like Allium cernuum, Blephilia ciliata, Rudbeckia triloba, Liatris aspera or Andropogon virginicus.
In garden situations, horizontally rayed cultivars of Echinacea purpurea like ‘Magnus’ or ‘Ruby Star’ could be substituted.
TRIVIA: The main identifying characteristic of Echinacea tennesseensis is the curvature of the ray florets up or out from the base of the flower head. Other Echinacea spp. generally have reflexed or drooping rays.
There are many glades in central Tennessee but this species occurs in just a few. The small distribution is due in part to the plant’s shade intolerance, self-sterile flowers and ineffective methods of seed distribution. In nursery situations this is a relatively easy plant to propagate.
For more information on this plant, visit the USDA PLANTS Database: http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=ECTE3