Glancing through a garden catalog, you might think coneflowers (Echinacea) come in a variety of colors, from tomato red to all shades of purple. But only hybrid coneflowers are available in a rainbow of colors and sizes. Coneflowers that are the ancestors of modern hybrids generally feature petals in shades of purple. Only one species, the yellow coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa), has pale yellow petals. All coneflowers are North American natives and members of the daisy, or Compositae family. They are closely related to Rudbeckia, or black-eyed Susan, also popular in both species and hybrid forms.
Purple and yellow coneflowers have common traits. Unlike many daisy-type flowers that feature flat, central disks, the coneflower's center is a rounded cone shape. The petals, or rays, are long and tend to droop. The flowers appear at the tops of tall stems, and the rough-textured, alternate leaves grow at the base of the plant and from the stems.
Purple Coneflower Species
Echinacea purpurea is the most common of the pruple coneflowers, found in prairie environments from Saskatchawan southward and as far east as Georgia. It has been used extensively in hybridizing. Echinacea pallida, the pale purple coneflower, sports downward-pointing petals and a sharply pointed cone. It favors dry prairies and is endangered in some areas. Narrowleaf coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) grows farther west than other species. Its petals are closer to those of the pruple coneflower and its rounded disk is orange-brown. Echinacea atrorubens grows only in contiguous areas of Texas and Kansas and is distinguished by its smooth leaves.The Tennessee coneflower, Echinacea tennessensis, has the thin petals of the pale purple coneflower, but is a brighter color.
Yellow coneflower, or Echinacea paradoxa, grows in the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks. The narrow, drooping petals resemble those of Echinacea pallida in all but its color. The cone is softly rounded, and the leaves are smooth. The plants grow to be about 3 feet tall.
Echinacea roots have long been used in herbal medicine and have attracted attention in modern times as an herbal cold remedy. Medicines made from the root purportedly increase resistance to all kinds of infections and can be applied topically for skin problems such as boils. The roots are used either fresh or dried.
Purple and yellow echinaceas complement each other in the garden and attract butterflies and pollinating insects and birds, which eat the seeds in the fall and winter. They are low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plants that require little care once they are established in well-drained soil. The seedheads of some species and hybrids persist through the winter.