Gotta Love Purple Coneflower!

Echinacea purpurea

Most gardeners recognize this distinctive perennial flower immediately. Native to prairies, this species has been widely cultivated by the horticulture industry; numerous multi-colored cultivars abound. Although the fancy newcomers provide a certain novelty to landscapes, I prefer the plain species — which is surprisingly variable without any help from horticulturalists.

I grew my Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) from seed originally. They sprouted readily in my greenhouse and were soon large enough to plant in beds throughout my yard. They are pollinator magnets, so some of them grow in an edge flowerbed in my vegetable garden, where I’ve tucked in a diverse array of flowering beauties to spiff up the veggie area, and invite pollinators. They also grow in my front flowerbed … and a side-yard flowerbed … and a rock garden bed .. and probably some other spots I’ve forgotten at the moment. You see, what I learned about these perennials is that, if they are happy, they will multiply.

The blooms last a long time. Purple Coneflowers are in the Composite family, which means each flower consists of two flower types: ray flowers — the ones sporting the lovely, usually purple petals, and disk flowers — the inconspicuous center flowers that, in the case of this species, grow into the “cone” that gives the flower its name as its seeds develop.

These seed cones are a bit prickly to the touch, and the genus name — Echinacea — is derived from the Greek word for hedgehog — echino. Teas and extracts of this plant provide popular herbal remedies. I haven’t tried them, but I know plenty of folks who swear by them.

My plants thrive in full to mostly full sun in good garden soil. I’ve read that they prefer soils on the basic side, so if your soils are very acidic, they might not thrive. But to me, good garden soil means a neutral pH, so this really shouldn’t be an issue. After they are established, they are very drought-resistant, and the pretty petals linger quite a while before they drop off and the cones enlarge as they fill with maturing seeds.

These flowers, which grow between one and three feet tall, depending on where they are and how much competition they have, look great in the front of flower borders. They attract all pollinators, including butterflies. And when the seeds are ripe, the goldfinches tear them to shreds, devouring the seeds with gusto.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must note that deer will eat these flowers. The blooms aren’t their first choice, but if they are hungry, or in the neighborhood, or just feeling spiteful (OK, I admit that’s a personal theory of mine), they will eat the flowers, leaving headless bloom stalks behind.

The goldfinches are responsible for the abundance of Purple Coneflowers now scattered throughout my yard. They are messy eaters. Inevitably, they disperse some seeds into adjacent areas. Every spring, I am surprised by more of the characteristic basal rosettes of leaves that identify this flower.

I mentioned the variability of the seedlings of this flower a bit earlier. Note the flower at the top of this entry. See how the petals droop gracefully? Not all of my Purple Coneflowers look like that. Many have ray flowers that extend straight out, horizontal to the disk flowers. And some of them aren’t even purple. Every so often, a white-petaled Purple Coneflower pops up. I assume it’s a genetically recessive trait that occasionally manifests.

Here’s a parting shot of a group of seedlings that planted themselves together. They amply demonstrate the variability I’ve described.

Purple Coneflowers (yes, all of them!)

My advice to every southeastern Piedmont gardener with a sunny flowerbed: If you haven’t done so already, find a spot for a few Purple Coneflowers. They feed native wildlife, and they look fabulous for most of the growing season. They won’t disappoint you — that’s a promise from this Piedmont Gardener!

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