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Species Spotlight: Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Updated: Dec 11, 2022

Flower variability in Purple Coneflower; green tips on ray flowers

Interesting facts:

  • The genus name, Echinacea, is derived from the Greek “echinos”, which means sea urchin or hedgehog and is a reference to the spiny flower heads that protect the seed.

  • Coneflowers are grown as a crop due to its use in herbal teas and supplements.

Native Environment/Plant Information:

Purple Coneflower generally has fibrous roots and consist of short, forked, woody rhizomes that form multiple crowns over time. This is part of the reason Purple Coneflower has a clumping habit and can form small, dense colonies. Basal leaves can get dense after a few years. When ready to flower, Purple Coneflower will send up a stiff stalk with alternate leaves that get smaller further up the stem. The flower stem terminates in a flower head 1 to 3 feet above the base. Smaller flowers often form from axillary buds on the stem. The flowers are a composite flower (Aster Family) whose “petals” are located on a ring of “ray flowers”, similar to sunflowers, daisies and asters. The ray flowers themselves are infertile and hold their color for four to 6 weeks. The color is variable from plant to plant but is usually a hue of pink, rose, lavender or purple. Occasionally, white flowers are found. The seeds are produced by flowers in the cone (florets), and are small, dark, 4-sided achenes that are similar to a sunflower’s seeds.

Purple Coneflower is a common prairie plant and prefers full sun. It is somewhat tolerant of drought conditions and can grow in a wide range of soil textures. It does best in soils with consistent soil moisture but will not tolerate saturated soils. Purple Coneflower is most commonly found in open, upland sites such as moist prairies, meadows, open woods, woodland edges and savannas.

Purple Coneflower is similar to Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida) but can be distinguished from the later by its broader leaves, bushier habit, and later blooming period.

Cultural Information:

Purple Coneflower is easiest to grow in sunny locations. It is adaptable to shadier conditions but prefers at least 4-6 hours of sun. Most coneflowers prefer well drained moist loams or slightly drier conditions. Its growth is best in fertile loams but it can also be outcompeted by more aggressive species when naturalized. It is tolerant of heat, of humidity, of poor soil, and of drought once established. You can tell it could use a good watering when the entire plant starts wilting, especially in strong sunlight, indicating that the soil has become too dry .

Echinacea species do not compete well with other plants and has low fertility needs. Fertilizer is not recommended as it can cause increased competition from weeds and other competing plant species. Mature plants can be divided when dormant. This process is done by splitting dormant crowns into smaller units, and immediately transplanting to desired locations. The roots are very susceptible to damaging due to drying when dug, and should be divided on a cool, damp day then immediately transplanted after dividing. Deadheading can improve the appearance of spent flowers but is not usually required for reblooming to occur.

Since Purple Coneflower is long-blooming and clump-forming, they work well in pots, in flower beds or as borders. They also work well meadows, native plant gardens, naturalized areas, wildflower gardens or part shade area of woodland gardens. They contrast well with Black-eyed Susan and work well as a cut flower.

All parts of the plant are said to stimulate the immune system but should not be used by immuno-compromised people<7>. Purple Coneflower was one of the most important plants used by Native Americans<5> and was used as a pain reliever, anti-inflammatory, a treatment for toothaches, coughs, colds, and sore throats. Overall, studies have proven inconclusive on the effectiveness for various supposed treatments <6>. Some studies have shown that Purple Coneflower is an immune system booster<5> and that compounds extracted from Echinacea species have shown inhibitory effects against certain forms of cancer <5><6>.

Flower opening in September

Wildlife uses:

Purple Coneflower are pollinated by long-tongued bees such as honeybees, bumblebees, digger bees (Melissodes spp.), and leaf-cutting bees (Megachile spp.), bee flies, halictid bees, butterflies, and skippers. Frequent butterfly visitors include Monarchs, Fritillaries, Painted Ladies, Swallowtails, Sulfurs, and Whites. Purple Coneflower is a host plant (caterpillars feed on the foliage) of the Silvery Checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis). Several moth species including Blackberry Looper (Chlorochlamys chloroleucaria), Common Eupithecia (Eupithecia miserulata), Wavy-Lined Emerald (Synchlora aerata), and Sunflower Moth (Homoeosoma electella) feed on the flowerheads.

American Goldfinches and other birds will feed on the seeds in fall and winter if flower heads are not removed.

Bumble bee pollinating after a freeze in November

Useful Links and References:

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