Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a North American native wildflower that is a favorite of gardeners and wild birds alike. Dozens of cultivated varieties exist, developed from the straight purple coneflower species and having been selected for flower color, shape and overall plant height.
Purple coneflower's original native range stretches across most of the eastern half of the United States, growing in the wild as far north as Michigan, west into Kansas and parts of Colorado, east to New York and south into parts of Florida. Two other separate but closely related species, narrow-leaved purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) and the pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) grow to the west and north of the common purple coneflower's range.
As a member of the aster plant family, the purple coneflower strongly resembles other readily identifiable aster family members, such as daisies, and was until recently included in the same genus as the black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia genus). The purple coneflower grows up to 3 feet tall and wide, featuring rough, lance-shaped leaves with conspicuous veins. Flowers appear as early as May, though in its northern range, flowering may begin as late as July; blossoms persist into mid to late fall. Deep pink to purple petal rays surround a mound-shaped orange seedhead that attracts finches and other songbirds as seeds ripen. Flowers are borne on thick, somewhat hairy stems that rise a foot or more above the foliage.
Care and Culture
In the wild, purple coneflower typically grows in well-drained soils in full sun. These perennial plants develop a tough, woody rhizome, and while plants will withstand moderately dry soils, plants tolerate neither extended periods of drought nor waterlogged soils. In the garden, purple coneflower grows best in full sun to part sun in moderately loamy soils. Coneflower does not need to be fertilized. Plants reproduce readily through self-seeding, and will slowly spread to form clumps.
Pests and Diseases
Very few pests or diseases trouble the purple coneflower in the garden, making it one of the lowest-maintenance perennial flowers available on the market. Grown in too much shade, however, foliage is susceptible to powdery mildew and flowering is greatly reduced. To transplant to a sunnier location, wait until the plant is completely dormant before digging and dividing, as the roots are very vulnerable to drying out when exposed.
Echinacea is sold as a dietary supplement in health food and grocery stores, and the herbal remedy is very popular due to its reputation for boosting immune response. Native Americans used preparations of the purple coneflower plant and root to treat toothache, colds, sore throats, syphilis and rabies, and the herb was also highly regarded for its antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties as well. One of purple coneflower's common names, snakeroot, points to its use as a snakebite remedy. Due to its popularity as an herbal remedy, over-collection of the plant in the wild has made it scarce in some places, landing it on the endangered plant list in Florida and Michigan.