Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
Everyone should grow purple coneflowers, also known as echinacea, in their flower beds or herb gardens. Here are 7 reasons why.
1. Coneflowers are a native plant
The most important reason echinacea belongs in every garden is that it is a native plant. Native plants are critical to the health and wellbeing of wildlife which depend on native plants for food and shelter.
The foreign, or exotic, plants that we have introduced into our yards from other countries and continents are not suited to our wildlife. Insects and birds will desert a yard filled with beautiful exotics because there is nowhere for them to shelter and nothing to eat. By using plants that are not natives we are contributing to the decline and possible extinction of our native birds, animals and insects.
Foreign plants often have no “enemies” here. They become invasive because there is nothing to stop them from spreading and crowding out our native plants. Good examples of foreign invasive plants are kudzu in the South and purple loosestrife in the Northeast. As is the case with native fauna, by using foreign plants in our landscapes we are contributing to the decline and possible extinction of our native plants.
2. Coneflowers are drought tolerant
Coneflowers are native to North America, growing in dry areas such as the prairies and Great Plains. There are three species, Echinacea angustifolia with narrow petals which is native to our dry prairies, Echinacea pallida, also called Pale Purple Coneflower which is native to the Mississippi Valley and Southern Great Plains and Echinacea purpurea the familiar purple flower which has a wide growing area from the Midwest to Florida. Depending on the species, the plants have either a long taproot which can reach water far underground or rhizomes with roots that spread out looking for moisture. None of them likes “wet feet” so plant them in well-drained soil or a raised bed and don’t water them unless they get very dry.
3. Coneflowers have a long blooming season
Unlike most perennials which only bloom for about two weeks each year, Echinacea has a long blooming season, stretching from early summer (June here in NJ) to late summer (August here in NJ). To get color for that long with other plants, you either have to have annuals which you must buy each year or a mix of perennials that bloom during different times of the summer. Annuals have to be deadheaded to keep them blooming all summer, a tedious chore. A mixed perennial border will only have a few plants in bloom at any one time.
4. Coneflowers can grow in partial shade
Got shade? No problem. Echinacea can grow in sun or part shade. They prefer sun and grow best in sun, but if you have a shady yard like I do, you can still grow them. Just make sure that your echinacea gets at least three to six hours of sun each day, preferably in the morning and early afternoon.
5. Coneflowers attract butterflies
If you have a butterfly garden, echinacea is a must have. It is a nectar plant for butterflies. Nectar plants are plants that provide food for butterflies. For the best results in a butterfly garden, you should plant a mix of nectar plants and host plants. Host plants are food for butterfly caterpillars.
Thanks to its large growing area in diverse parts of North America, echinacea is one of the best nectar plants for attracting a wide range of butterflies. You will find swallowtails, black swallowtails, clouded sulphurs, banded hairstreaks, great spangled fritillaries, red spotted admirals, painted ladies, American ladies, West indigo duskywings, Horace’s duskywings, sachems, and little glasswings. All of them find coneflowers irresistible.
6.Coneflowers are easy to grow from seed
Echinacea is easy to grow from seed. For many years, I was one of those gardeners who conscientiously weeded and deadheaded each day and then did a thorough cleanup in the fall. I always wondered why everyone else seemed to have multiple clumps of echinacea and I only had one plant that was given to me by a friend. Then one fall, I was too busy to keep up with my gardens and left the dead flower heads on my plant. The dried brown cones looked ugly all winter but the following spring, I found tiny seedlings that had germinated from the seeds dropped the prior fall by all those ugly brown cones. Lesson learned! Echinacea will readily self-sow if you are willing to leave a little mess in the fall.
7.Coneflowers attract goldfinches
Do you know who else likes echinacea seeds? Goldfinches. Once I started leaving the dead cones on my echinacea plants, goldfinches appeared like magic. They are startlingly yellow, have the prettiest songs and adore echinacea seeds. They perch, seemingly precariously, on the dead flowerheads and patiently pick out the seeds from the cones. If you want to save seed for yourself, harvest the seedheads and finish drying them in a paper bag. Be sure to leave a few cones on your plants for the hungry goldfinches.
Consider adding echinacea to your garden or if you already have it in your garden, try some different varieties. Modern hybridizers are constantly developing new cultivars in a wide range of colors including white, yellow, orange and red. There are even some double flowers. You'll enjoy months of flowers and lots of garden visitors.
Questions & Answers
Question: Will the coneflower seeds from deadheads come up with mulch down?
Answer: It is not likely. To be effective, mulch should be applied in a thick 2 to 3-inch layer. The purpose of all that mulch is to prevent weed seeds from germinating so it will also prevent coneflower seeds from germinating.
Question: Do cornflowers go underground?
Answer: No, cornflowers are annuals. They propagate by seed. After your cornflowers bloom, allow the flowers to go to seed. Then you can either collect the seed and sow it the following spring or you can allow the seed to fall naturally into the garden. They will germinate in the spring.
Question: If I trim ( dead head ) the coneflowers, will more blooms grow?
Answer: No, purple coneflowers are perennials so they only bloom once a year. When you remove the spent flowers, no more flowers will grow until next year. The nice thing about the coneflowers is that unlike other perennial flowers whose flowers usually only last for two weeks, the flowers of the coneflowers last much longer.
Question: Will sowing commercial seeds directly into the ground readily germinate or is it best to start them indoors? Is it best to sow seeds in autumn or spring?
Answer: Echinacea seed needs cold weather to germinate, so sow your seeds outdoors in the fall. If you want to start seeds indoors, you will need to cold stratify them in your refrigerator to mimic cold weather.
Question: Do the coneflowers go underground?
Answer: Yes, coneflowers are perennials. In the fall, frost kills the foliage, but the roots stay alive in the soil all winter. When the soil warms in the spring, new foliage will begin to grow from the roots.
Question: If I don't deadhead the coneflower (in this case, orange) will I have the same color come back in the spring, or will the seed revert back to the original purple flower?
Answer: Orange coneflowers are hybrids, so the short answer to your question is that if they reseed in your garden, the offspring may be neither orange nor the original purple.
A longer explanation: hybrids are the result of the cross of two parents that may or may not look like the resulting offspring depending on how the genes are expressed. For instance, if the parents both have recessive genes for orange, then you will get orange offspring. But if only one parent has a recessive orange gene, then none of the offspring will be orange.
The offspring of a hybrid cross will bear seeds that may or may not germinate. A lot of hybrids are sterile. Others will germinate into plants that do not look like their hybrid parents or even like the grandparents depending on the gene expression.
Question: Will rabbits pose a problem for growing purple coneflowers?
Answer: I've grown purple coneflowers in a lot of places, including places that have a rabbit problem but I have never had a problem with rabbits eating or destroying my coneflowers.
© 2012 Caren White
Caren White (author) on July 02, 2020:
It's hardy in zones 3 - 10 so as long as you don't get a lot of rain, you should be able to grow it. It likes to be dry so it is challenging to grow in areas of the country that are very wet.
Hope on July 01, 2020:
Could I grow Echinacea Pallida in Northern Idaho?
Caren White (author) on September 11, 2012:
I'm thinking maybe it was my location. I've moved to a new home in a new town and will try my luck again next year.
Connie Smith from Southern Tier New York State on September 11, 2012:
I am surprised that a lucky hummer hasn't found your gardens yet! You certainly have the right flowers. I have found that my red weigela bushes and the orange butterfly weed are visited many times daily when they are in bloom. Also, I have lots of wild jewelweeds that bloom toward the end of July right up through the frost. They are absolute hummer magnets!
Caren White (author) on September 10, 2012:
I adore "weeds". So many of them have pretty flowers so I let them grow in my gardens. When people ask me why I have weeds in my garden, I remind them that all of the flowers we enjoy in our gardens were originally weeds. I envy you having a hummer. I've never had any luck attracting them to my yard.
Connie Smith from Southern Tier New York State on September 10, 2012:
I totally and heartily agree that native plants are absolutely necessary to any garden. I love my echinacea, and always collect a few seeds to scatter into other areas of the yard. I now have many coneflowers that are always covered with bees, butterflies and hummers.
My native 'weeds' are just another part of the garden that attracts so many beneficial insects, lots of chickadees, titmice and finches, etc. In fact, just yesterday I spotted a ruby throat working at the native white asters that are in flower right now.
I like all your ideas about gardening. Very well done! Voted Up across the board and shared.
Caren White (author) on August 31, 2012:
You're welcome, Jill!
Jill Spencer from United States on August 31, 2012:
Your "messy garden lesson" made me laugh. And I'm looking forward to seeing the goldfinches too, those seed snatchers! Next to the cardinals and bluebirds we get around here, they are the prettiest, brightest little creatures. Enjoyed it! (And thanks for the plug!) --Jill
Caren White (author) on August 30, 2012:
Thanks for the great review and rating.
Olde Cashmere on August 30, 2012:
Beautiful flowers and this was a great article OldRoses. Voting up and rating useful and awesome :)
Caren White (author) on August 30, 2012:
You're right. They will not grow in a wetland. They like to be dry so a continer or raised bed would be best.
Sasha Kim on August 30, 2012:
They're so pretty, I'd grow them for that reason alone! Although is says they grow from mid west- east. I'm West coast and in a wetland area... I'm not sure they'd grow as well here. Maybe in pots? voted up and useful!
Caren White (author) on August 27, 2012:
Thanks! They are one of my favorites also.
Catherine Dean from Milledgeville, Georgia on August 27, 2012:
Purple coneflowers are one of my favorite flowers to grow. I voted up.