Purple Cone Flower

Purple Cone Flower

Echinacea purpurea

Kingdom: Plantae

Phylum: Magnoliophyta (Flowering Plants)

Class: Magnoliopsida (Dicotyledons)

Order: Asterales

Family: Asteraceae (Aster Family)

Genus: Echinacea

Species: purpurea

Where in the OLL?

Where is this plant in the OLL

Echinacea purpurea is a species of herbaceous perennial flowering plant with a native range from the Midwest through to the Southeast.  Because it is not an aggressive plant, it thrives in gardens but rarely ventures out into the wild, making this plant a non-naturalized, non-native in the Northeast and Northern Great Lakes.  

Echinacea is in many gardens of the OLL including the permaculture garden, rain garden, and botanical garden.  Echinacea is in the permaculture garden because it is a perennial plant with multiple human and ecological benefits.  Every winter the exposed, above ground parts of the plant wither and die while the root system conserves energy and enters a dormancy period until the spring, when the warming soil breaks that dormancy and starts the growth cycle again.

In the rain garden, the year round presence of the this plant’s deep, sturdy taproots help to prevent erosion by slowing the flow of water downhill.  The roots of echinacea are large and require substantial amounts of water, but are happy in dry to moist soils with good drainage.

Echinacea is included in the botanical garden, not only because it is a beautiful non-native flowering plant, but also because of the medicinal properties of the roots.

Plant growth form

Height: 2-5 ft

Spread: 1.5-2 ft

Echinacea is a herbaceous perennial, which means the above ground plant parts will die back once a year, typically in the fall before winter, and come back in the spring as new growth.  The stems are hollow and round, lacking woody substance.  It has a large root system with thick taproots.  Leaves are sandpapery and lance shaped, in an alternating leaf arrangement.

Flowers, fruits & pollinators

Bloom Time: April-September

Color (ray florets): Pink-Purple

Color (disc florets): Green-Pale Yellow

Color (bract): Yellow-Orange/Red

Sepals: 5

Stamen: 5  

Pistil: 1

Number of Disc Florets: more than 50

Number of Ray Florets: 6-10

Floral Arrangement: Perfect (Bisexual)

Flower Type: Cone Flower

Width of Flower Head (with ray florets): 6-10cm 

Width of Flowers (disc florets): 1.5-3.5 mm

What we often see as the ‘flower’ of the Echinacea is actually a cluster of dozens of flowers, or disc florets, arranged in a whirl on a cone shaped flower receptacle.  These individual flowers together make up what is known as a capitulum.  Echinacea, like all members of the Asteraceae family, have a capitulum surrounded by a whirl of several infertile ray florets.  The ray florets are commonly thought of as ‘petals’, surrounding the central ‘head’ of the Echinacea ‘flower’.  Plants in the Aster family make these composite flowers—where many flowers occur together but give the overall appearance of being a single, larger flower.

Each disc floret (from the center of the composite flower) has five fused petals creating a cup containing a pistil, with a bi-lobed (two-lobed) stigma and a style leading to an ovary with one ovule, surrounded by a cylinder of five anthers.  Also, each floret has a bract (modified leaf or scale) protruding up, giving the capitulum a spiny, hedgehog like appearance. (The root word of Echinacea comes from the Greek word echinus, meaning hedgehog or sea urchin).  The disc florets mature sequentially from the perimeter of the capitulum to the center, with one whirl reaching maturity each morning.  There is only a small amount of nectar in each floret, forcing pollinators like bees, butterflies, and birds to visit multiple florets on multiple flower heads during a single foraging. This encourages cross pollination.

Ideal location, conditions & cultural needs

Growing Zones: 3-8

Light: Full Sun and Partial Shade

Soil Moisture: Dry to Medium

Soil Drainage: Good

Ideal pH: 6-7

Habitats: Anthropogenic (human made), Forest Edges, Meadows, Fields

Echinacea loves full sunlight (6 or more hours of direct sunlight per day) but will do fine in partial shade (2-6 hours of direct sunlight per day).  The soil must have good drainage but stay moist.  No unique nutrient condition are required and the necessary pH is not out of the ordinary (pH 6-7).  Echinacea self seeds easily and will grow just about anywhere that is not wetlands or desert, ranging from anthropogenic habitats (man-made or disturbed habitats) to forest edges.  Echinacea has a primarily Southeastern and Midwestern native distribution range that does not including New England.

Planning & maintenance

A single plant needs 1-4 square feet of space in the garden in order to comfortably reach maturity, and seeds should be planted at least 18 inches apart.  If an area gets overcrowded then dividing plants may be necessary (about every four years).  Echinacea is not a rapidly growing plant and will not take over a space without notice.

Cultivars & propagation

Depending on where you live there are many of beautiful cultivars to choose from.  Most all Echinacea grows in zones 3-8, but there are others that grow in zones 4-9.  If the intention for growing Echinacea is to use it for its medicinal properties, then Purple Coneflower is the best  choice, but there are many amazing  varieties to choose from.  There is the variety of colors that comes with the ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ which are know throughout the midwest, the flamboyance of the ‘Hot papaya’ from the southeast, or the brilliant red of ‘Firebird’.  All are excellent choices, and all of them will improve pollinator population and add depth to a garden.

Planting seeds or dividing roots are the ways to propagate Echinacea purpurea.  It is unclear if Echinacea seeds have a cold stratification requirement or not.  Scientific studies have shown conflicting results. Some experts, like Echinacea breeder Dr. Jim Ault of the Chicago Botanical Garden, give Echinacea seeds an 8 week cold stratification at temperatures equivalent to winter temperatures in his area.  

Division of roots should take place in the early Spring or late Fall.  This minimizes stress on the plants because they will either be in a state or rest in the Fall or still dormant in the Spring.  

It is also possible to propagate Echinacea using basal stem cuttings.  4-6 inch cuttings from the Spring growth may be treated with solution of 1000ppm of powdered IBA (rooting hormone, auxin).

Pests & pathogens

Deer will eat new growth but typically avoid mature plants unless they are desperate.  Occasionally other pests will infest a plant, such as Japanese beetles, root borers, aphids, cutworms, eriophyid mites, or tent caterpillars.  Some of these pests you will be able to crush with your fingers (Japanese beetles) of spray off with a hose (aphids).  Other options of pest management include introducing natural predators that do not harm the plant itself.  Most fungi affecting to Echinacea are rare, and only affect the plant cosmetically.  Affected plants should be thrown away, not composted, to prevent spreading.  Another cause of fungal infestation is overly wet soil.  Alter watering patterns to promote aeration of soil. 

Landscape & ecosystem

Echinacea is a beautiful flower that contributes color and diversity to any landscape.  The flowers are an excellent source of nectar and pollen for the many pollinating birds and insects that rely on it for food.  

Human uses

Echinacea root is very safe, and has been used for its medicinal properties for centuries.  It can be boiled to make tea, tinctured, made into a glycerite (sweet herbal tincture made with vegetable glycerine), or chewed.  Used for recovery from acute viral or bacterial infection, especially of the upper respiratory tract; an immune system stimulant but not a daily immune tonic.  Used by the First Nations tribes of the Plains for a great deal of medical purposes, both topically and internally, as an antiseptic and an anti-inflammatory for wounds, burns, fungus, or boils.  It can also be used for allergic reactions, venomous snake bites, and a digestive stimulant.  Make sure to consult a medical professional or professional herbalist before beginning use of Echinacea in any medical capacity.

Plant catalogued by Nick Picariello
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