Traditional coneflowers, scientifically known as Echinacea, are purple with brown centers. Originally a prairie wildflower, this popular perennial is now cultivated over much of the country. Coneflowers, a member of the aster family, are classified as a medicinal plant. Echinacea are extremely easy to grow.
Prior to the 17th century, Plains Indians used an elixir from the boiled roots of coneflowers to treat snakebite and a brewed tea as a pain reliever. More recently, extracts from coneflowers are used as a treatment for skin conditions, burns and cold sores. The medicinal wildflowers can be used as a remedy for respiratory or digestive distress.
Coneflowers resemble black-eyed Susans with a dark, spiny, cone-shaped center and droopy, curved petals. Leaves are narrow, scraggly and rough, decreasing in size at the top of the hairy stem. Depending on variety, the plants grow from 1 to 3 feet high and require 15 to 18 inch spacing between plants. The coneflowers bloom on single stems from early to mid-summer through first frost. The large, fragrant flowers attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. The seed cones remaining after the petals have fallen attract birds, especially if left on through the winter.
Until the late 1990s, coneflowers bloomed in shades of purple to pink. New hybrids are available in bright reds, oranges, yellows, off-white and pale green. The Big Sky series of coneflowers includes the lemon-yellow sunrise, peach-colored sunset, bright red-orange sundown, rose-red twilight and golden yellow harvest moon. The coloring of other varieties is suggested by their names, the creamy red-orange tomato soup, bright yellow macaroni and cheese, white and green coconut lime, and fiery-orange hot papaya.
The original purple coneflowers are found native in the mid-central Plains states. Hybrids are found throughout the eastern and central United States and Canada. Some specialty crosses are specific to only certain locations. Bush's coneflowers are grown in Texas, Arkansas and Missouri; Topeka coneflower is cultivated in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas; and the small, spindly Tennessee coneflower is found exclusively in that state.
This perennial prefers full sun and average to dry soil with good drainage. It is preferable to sow traditional purple coneflowers from seeds in late fall. Hybrid varieties can be divided at the roots in the early spring. Plants are wide and bushy, requiring ample spacing between seedlings or root divisions. Deadheading will encourage more blooms, but limit visits from birds. Coneflowers can be pruned to stimulate a fuller plant by cutting back by half early in the summer. Fertilization should not be necessary.