Coneflower (Echinacea) is an attractive plant indigenous to the North American plains that is well-loved not only for its beauty and its ability to attract butterflies, but also for its medicinal value.
Numerous Plains tribes, such as the Cheyenne and Sioux, used echinacea as an antiseptic and painkiller. They also used it to treat insect and snake bites.
Today, many herbal medicine adherents use the plant’s roots to treat viral and bacterial infections, reduce inflammation, and heal wounds.
Even if you’re not interested in its purported medicinal properties, the upright, herbaceous perennial sprouts masses of 3- to 4-inch flowers and is a lovely addition to many garden settings.
Let’s learn more!
What’s In a Name?
This plant takes its common name from the cone-shaped mound of tiny flowers at the center of its larger flowerhead. Its scientific name is derived from the Greek word for hedgehog.
The plant grows in an upright form and can become as tall as four feet.
The most widely known variety, the purple coneflower, grows to about 18 inches tall, and sprouts a clump of flowers about two feet wide.
The plant’s flowers are daisy-like, with attractively drooping petals in a wide range of colors.
Its rough leaves are dark green and 4 to 8 inches long.
All the Colors of the Rainbow
In addition to purple coneflower, nine other native species have been identified:
- Narrow-leaf coneflower (E. angustifolia)
- Narrow-leaved purple coneflower (E. serotina)
- Pale purple coneflower (E. pallida)
- Sanguine purple coneflower (E. sanguinea)
- Smooth coneflower (E. laevigata)
- Tennessee coneflower (E. tennesseensis)
- Topeka purple coneflower (E. atrorubens)
- Wavyleaf purple coneflower (E. simulata)
- Yellow coneflower (E. paradoxa)
Smooth coneflower is quite rare and is included on the federal Endangered Species Act list of species in danger of disappearing.
In addition to the above naturally occurring species, dozens of varieties have been developed by commercial breeders, each seemingly more showy and vivid than the last.
Hot Papaya, available at Nature Hills Nursery, is one example. We love the vibrant orange double bloom.
You can also find the popular native purple version at Holland Bulb Farms, available via Amazon.
Sun, But No Salt, Please
Various varieties are hardy in zones 3-9.
They prefer full sun, although some types do well in part shade.
This species likes evenly moist, well-drained soil and will tolerate drought once established.
It will do best in rich, organic soil. It doesn’t like salty soil, but will do well in pretty much any soil pH.
Bake a Cake, Receive a Plant
You can start this fantastic flower from seed, nursery starts, or by division. If your neighbor has an enviable clump or two, take over a homemade cake like this recipe from our sister site Foodal, and ask for a share.
If you’re planting seeds, sow them at a depth of ⅛ inch in 70° to 75°F soil and expect a 15- to 30-day germination period. Some gardeners have better luck sowing the seeds in the fall, to allow for cold stratification.
This is a process by which the seed freezes and thaws repeatedly, softening the seed coat and stimulating embryonic growth.
Plant seedlings in spring or fall. Choose a sunny spot, loosen the soil in a 10-inch-diameter circle around the planting site, and dig a hole the depth of the root ball.
Lower the plant into the hole, backfill with removed dirt, and gently tamp down.
To divide your neighbor’s plant, choose a nice spring or fall day, and cut into the soil with your shovel in a circle about 6 inches out from the clump.
Gently slide your shovel under the mass of the plant and lift it out. Use your shovel blade to cut the plant into 8-inch-diameter sections.
Replace your neighbor’s portions, plant your sections in your garden, and water everything well.
Deadhead spent flowers to encourage more blooming.
You can also cut blooms in their prime to use in flower arrangements.
Remove dead foliage and stems as needed.
Coneflowers aren’t heavy feeders. You can maintain their health and vigor with an application of 12-6-6 slow-release fertilizer annually, just before new leaves emerge.
During dry periods, give these colorful beauties one inch of water once a week. No supplemental water is required during the rainy season.
Problems to Look For
While there are a few nasties to look out for, none pose a serious risk to plants of this type.
Powdery mildew can plague echinacea. To curb this fungal disease, mix together 1 teaspoon of baking soda, ½ teaspoon of liquid soap, and 1 gallon of water. Spray on affected plants.
Aphids, beetles, and mites can also be a problem for these plants. Use insecticidal soaps to rid plants of these pests.
An American Original
Ready to add a slice of Americana to your garden?
With dozens of varieties to choose from and blooms that last from early summer to late fall, easy-care echinacea is certainly a worthy addition to many landscapes.
No word on whether these plains natives will attract bison to your yard, but you’ll certainly have lots of butterflies stopping by.
If you were to plant coneflower, would you choose a native variety or one of the new hybrids? Tell us, below in the comments section!
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Product photos via Holland Bulb Farms, Nature Hills Nursery, and Wayside Gardens. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.
The staff at Gardener’s Path are not medical professionals and this article should not be construed as medical advice intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Gardener’s Path and Ask the Experts, LLC assume no liability for the use or misuse of the material presented above. Always consult with a medical professional before changing your diet or using plant-based remedies or supplements for health and wellness.
About Gretchen Heber
A former garden editor for a daily newspaper in Austin, Texas, Gretchen Heber goes through entirely too many pruners and garden gloves in a year’s time. She’s never met a succulent she didn’t like and gets really irritated every 3-4 years when Austin actually has a freeze cold enough to kill them. To Gretchen, nothing is more rewarding than a quick dash to the garden to pluck herbs to season the evening meal. And it’s definitely time for a happy dance when she’s able to beat the squirrels to the peaches, figs, or loquats.