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  • Writer's pictureBethany Plonski

Native Plants: Purple Coneflower

It's hard to think of a flower with a more cheerful, summery look than purple coneflower (except perhaps for Black-eyed Susans, but we'll get there soon enough). Whether or not people are conscious that it is a native, purple coneflower is one of the few native species that most non-gardeners can easily recognize, thanks to its distinctive spiky cone and widespread use in a variety of settings.

Purple coneflower against a green background
Purple coneflower, echinacea purpurea

Many people know this plant by its scientific name of echinacea, which comes rather adorably from the Greek word for hedgehog (ekhînos). Often included in herbal teas and treatments for the common cold, it has a variety of medicinal uses.

A cluster of purple coneflowers

Purple coneflower is one of my favorite native plants because it does so much for wildlife. This flower is so popular with pollinators that it causes actual traffic jams in the garden! It is always covered in butterflies and bees, often with two or three of them crowding onto the same flowerhead at once.

An American lady butterfly and gray hairstreak butterfly on the same purple coneflower
American lady and gray hairstreak butterflies sharing the same coneflower

Two bumblebees crowding on the same coneflower
Room for two?

Big or small, it doesn't matter. Purple coneflower is always a winner with the bees!

Carpenter bee on echinacea seed cone

Ligated furrow bee on purple coneflower
A tiny ligated furrow bee

But it's not just pollinators that enjoy purple coneflower. The birds love it too! In my yard, coneflowers attract goldfinches like crazy. Goldfinches are one of the few bird species with an entirely vegetarian diet, and they will consume nearly every part of the coneflower, from the leaves and petals to the seeds. It's wild to watch them strip off the petals and eat them!

Male goldfinch perched on purple coneflower plants
In summer goldfinches will stop to nibble on coneflower petals and leaves

Male goldfinch pulling seeds from a dried coneflower
Goldfinches love to visit after coneflower seedheads ripen, balancing like tightrope walkers on the flower's long, dry stems

I've also heard that bunnies are big fans of coneflowers. Every year my mom tells me about her struggle to keep her coneflowers alive once the neighborhood rabbits find them and devour the leaves. So when I noticed an Eastern cottontail hanging out pretty regularly near my coneflowers this summer, I was curious to see if she would try to eat them. It turned out she had zero interest whatsoever, preferring to munch in a clover patch in our yard instead. She does like to hide out underneath them in the shade they create in the heat of the day though!

Rabbit surrounded by coneflowers and Black-eyed Susans
Our friendly backyard bunny peeking through the coneflowers and black-eyed Susans

When you buy coneflowers for your garden, you should note that there are quite a few cultivars and variations of the true native purple coneflowers available. Cultivars are plant varieties that are selectively bred for specific traits, like color or height. When it comes to native plants, cultivars are usually a neater and tidier version that looks more like a typical garden plant than something you'd find growing wild in a meadow.

Cultivars can be helpful if you're looking for flashy colors, or for coneflowers that won't grow as tall. Native coneflowers are quite leggy! Mine are over four feet tall this year, while the cultivars are less than half that height.

Red flowers of the "sombrero sangrita' coneflower cultivar
The "sombrero sangrita' coneflower cultivar

Two years ago, I planted a few coneflower cultivars in my garden, primarily so I could compare them with the true native species. After two summers, I've concluded it's not really worthwhile to plant the cultivars. In addition to having a shorter bloom time, the cultivars seem far less attractive to pollinators. The only time I really notice any activity on my cultivars is when the native coneflowers are already too busy to accommodate anyone else! And even then, their visitors seem to stop for a quick second and move on, as if they are disappointed with the flower.

For whatever reason, these "pow wow white" cultivars almost seem to repel insects. In two years, I don't even have one photo of a pollinator visiting them!

In terms of maintenance, I don't see much difference between the cultivars and the natives. Both are easy keepers, but I've noticed that my native coneflowers produce more flowers and bloom for a longer time, from June through August. The cultivars fade after about a month.

A gulf fritillary, one of the many butterflies that visit my native coneflowers

Even if you aren't very committed to planting an entirely native garden, coneflowers can be a great addition to your yard. For very little effort, they'll give you quite a big reward, especially if you're looking to bring more pollinator activity to your garden.


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