Coneflowers are popular in Texas with good reason, they are a domesticated perennial wildflower that adapts easily to a range of growing conditions, including periods of heat and drought, they are easy to grow, bloom for months, make great cut flowers, and attract birds and pollinators. They come in glorious shades of pink, orange, yellow, red, and chartreuse, as well as a range of flower forms from standard shuttlecock to horizontal ruffs to doubles with a powder-puff center. What more could any gardener ask?
This lovely summer “must have” is at home bordering a flowerbed or planted behind shorter perennials or alongside other daisy-like wildflowers such as black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta). Often, purple coneflower is planted in wildflower gardens or naturalized areas. The plant is a welcome addition to a butterfly garden, attracting species such as painted lady, monarch and fritillary. Honeybees are attracted to the sweet nectar and small songbirds eat the dried seeds in late summer and fall. Purple coneflower works well in cut flower bouquets, and the flowers are easily dried by hanging small bunches upside down in a warm, well-ventilated room.
Although purple coneflowers perform best in full sun, the plants tolerate partial shade. The drought-tolerant plant is adaptable to punishing heat and drought but may react with bleached petals and some degree of scorched foliage. Moderately fertile, dry to slightly moist garden soil is preferable, but purple coneflower is adaptable to soil with some clay or gravel. Although the plant is technically an annual, it reseeds itself in my garden from year to year. The flower grows naturally in prairies or open woodlands but the number of plants in the wild are dwindling due to over-harvesting and loss of native habitat. Which is another great reason to grow it our own yards and gardens.
I hear you asking, “Are they deer resistant?” The answer is a “yes, but” kind of thing.
Many gardeners do report that they are deer resistant. Their spiny centers and strong aroma deter deer. But let’s face it, if deer are hungry enough, they will eat almost anything, these flowers included. Other animals that may take a little nibble include rabbits and squirrels. But for the most part coneflower is left alone as hungry critters prefer other, tastier plants instead.
Care and maintenance for coneflower is really easy as they only require the basics: regular watering of about an inch per week, a light layer of compost added in the spring, and to be cut back in fall, and even that’s optional if you prefer to leave the seed heads.
To prune or not to prune, that is the question. Though deadheading is a common garden practice to encourage repeat blooming, many varieties of coneflower these days are flower-producing machines and will keep delivering new buds without snipping off spent blooms. That way you can leave them be, guaranteeing food for wildlife and birds, particularly small songbirds like finches, which are crazy about the seeds. Flowers appearing post-deadheading can be smaller and less satisfying, so why not just leave the first, bigger flowers to go to seed and give the birds a feast? Once your coneflower has finished blooming, it can be pruned down to ground level to over-winter. Or, if you prefer to leave the dried seed heads, it can be pruned down in early spring.
When planting purple coneflower, locate them in a full sun area. Full sun is defined as at least six hours of sun each day. In our central Texas landscapes, morning sun may facilitate the best performance, with late afternoon shade protecting the plants from burning.
- Seeds – If you wish to collect seeds for next year’s crop of purple coneflower plants, do so before the birds have eaten all the seeds. Place a brown paper bag over the seed head, turn right side up and let seeds drop into the bag. Professional growers believe stratification (chilling) of the seeds for a few weeks, after they are planted in moist soil, produces a more abundant bloom when growing purple coneflowers.
- Division – Purple coneflower plants may be started from root division in fall. Only plants that have been in the ground for three years or longer should be divided. Younger coneflower plants may not have developed a root system that is extensive enough for division. Root division should be limited to every three to four years.
Growing purple coneflower from seeds is easy enough for the beginning gardener, while long-time gardeners delight in the ease of how to care for coneflowers.
Historically, the North American Plains Indians utilized the purple coneflower, or Echinacea, for medicinal purposes. Historians have found evidence that pointed towards using the popular flower for snakebite, anthrax and pain relief.
Kiowa and Cheyenne tribes used the flower for coughs and sore throat ailments. The Pawnees used the flower for headaches. The Sioux tribes, along with countless others, used the flower for an analgesic. The Native Americans discovered the medicinal plant after observing the elk in the wild. After being wounded or when sick, the elk would seek the plants and consume them. By the 1930s, Echinacea became a popular remedy in several regions, including Europe and North America.
During the early years of the 20th century, people began using Echinacea herbal remedies to treat infections as well. They would make extracts of the plant and apply or ingest them. Echinacea plants as herbs fell out of favor when antibiotics were discovered. However, people kept using cornflowers medicinally as an external treatment for wound healing. Some continued ingesting medicinal Echinacea to stimulate the immune system.
In modern times, using Echinacea plants as herbs is again becoming popular and its effectiveness is being tested by scientists. Popular coneflower herbal uses include combatting mild to moderate upper respiratory tract infections like the common cold. According to experts in Europe, Echinacea herbal remedies can make colds less severe and also cut short the duration of colds.
But at least nine studies have found that those who used Echinacea herbal remedies for colds improved significantly more than the placebo group.
But if you are like me you may just want to grow them because they are beautiful.