Jule Romans the author of "Take Advice From Shakespeare" and other books. She enjoys gardening with native wildflowers.
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a native wildflower. As the name implies, the petals of this flower are a lovely shade of purple. There are so many variations in wild, however, and with native plants it is not unusual for its flowers to appear to be any color: deep violet, pinkish, or lavender.
- Winter food for birds. Host plant for butterflies and moths.
- Dramatic, large, bold splash of color. Effective in large groupings. Fills garden beds quickly.
- Improves soil health. Deep roots soften clay and hard soils.
- Does not crowd out other flowers, provides support and backdrop for smaller plants. Tough enough to compete with native grasses.
- Daisy-type. Tall. Purple and gold blooms. Medium, green, tall, stiff stems. Medium-large leaves mass at base, intermittent along stems.
- Vigorous, long-lasting blooms.
- Petals can range from pinkish lavender through deep purple. Centers can be yellow to rich ochre. Blooms summer through fall.
- Grows to height of 3–5 feet. Can be deadheaded and pinched back in various ways to achieve various effects.
- Full sun for greatest number of blooms and strongest plants. Partial sun or light shade will result in weaker stems, more foliage, and fewer blooms.
- Prefers slightly dry, thin to medium soils; yet, surprisingly, will thrive in clay. Drought tolerant, requires little to no watering. Does not like seasonally flooded or consistently muddy areas.
- DO NOT fertilize this plant.
Scientific/Latin names are useful to help identify natural variations, especially when looking to attract or support wildlife.
The scientific name of a flower consists of the genus name (Echinacea, for example) followed by the species name (in this case, purpurea). The genus name is always capitalized. The species name is always lowercase.
Growing Information for Purple Coneflower
Here's some more in-depth information to help you make your purple coneflowers thrive.
The plant is hardy to Zone 3. Although its stems and leaves may turn brown, the roots will remain healthy and strong. The flower will grow vigorously again in spring and continue to spread larger each year. In warmer climates like zones 7 and above, the purple coneflower may act like an annual. That is, it might complete its entire life cycle in one season: growing, setting seed, and dying out. However, it will drop enough seeds to start new plants almost immediately.
Purple coneflower most often behaves the same way in warmer climates as it does in cold. Thus, virtually any garden can depend upon healthy purple coneflower plants every year. It does seem to do best in areas with diversity of seasons though.
Sun and Soil Requirements
Echinacea purpurea needs full sun—that is, at least six hours of direct sunshine every day. It will grow decently with less sunshine, but will not produce as many flowers.
It is not a thirsty plant. Once established, it should need very little watering unless the climate is quite dry. Echinacea grows best in well-drained areas, but it is not fussy.
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Some garden catalogs call it a “clay-buster” plant that can root through and help open up heavy soils. DO NOT fertilize native plants. Fertilizer will case excessive foliage, weak stems, and fewer blooms.
Pinching Back Purple Coneflower
Echinacea purpurea grows quite tall. Left unchecked, it can reach 4–5 feet high. The stems are strong, so the flowers rarely flop over unless they are not getting enough sun.
There is a way to get the same dramatic effect from the plant, without the added height. It is technically called pinching back, although it has nothing whatsoever to do with any kind of pinching. Pinching back a plant is pruning it before it starts to create flowers.
When the plants are growing, but before they have begun to bud, cut the stems back, almost to the ground. The stems will grow up again, but shorter, buds will form, and flowers will bloom just the same.
This can be a handy trick to vary the heights of blooms on a single plant.
Benefits of Purple Coneflower
The purple coneflower is very easy to grow from seed, especially in the winter. It responds very well to being sown in its own individual container outdoors.
It is tough, pretty, and best of all, it spreads quickly. It can fill great amounts of garden space rapidly and with very little expense. That is not the only great thing about this lovely perennial though.
Benefits for Songbirds
Purple coneflowers are excellent for attracting songbirds. If the stems and seed heads are left standing through the colder seasons, goldfinches will visit regularly. The sight of a bright yellow finch perched atop a dried seed head is a charming sight that brightens up winter days. There is some speculation that leaving any wildflowers standing will encourage return visits year after year and even encourage songbirds form mixed flocks to nest nearby.
Echinacea purpurea is the source of a popular herbal remedy that many people use to boost their immune systems. Echinacea root is prepared carefully under strict conditions, so do not attempt to eat the root of the plant straight from the garden. Nevertheless, it is interesting to know that the plant that grows so vigorously in the soil can also help humans retain their own vitality.
Variations, Extensions, and Combinations
Echinacea pallida, or pale purple coneflower, has a more delicate-looking blossom. This variety of echinacea is the host plant for the endangered Otto's Skipper butterfly. This is a native variation of echinacea, which is quite different from a lab-created cultivar. There are other native species of echinacea that are equally useful to wildlife. All species of echinacea are host plants for the sunflower moth.
It is important to note that in all garden flowers, native variations are not the same as deliberate color manipulation. The extreme color differences that result in white, deep pink, and yellow are artificially induced cultivars. The cultivars do not have the same benefits or respond to the same tips as the native varieties.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Jule Romans