This article written for and originally appeared at oregongarden.com on August 21, 2018.
Echinacea – sometimes called “coneflower” for the unmistakable, pinecone-shaped structure at their center – are an attractive and multipurpose cousin of the daisy. They are native to eastern and central North America, and are widely cultivated in gardens throughout the world for their attractive blooms and medicinal properties.
The name echinacea comes from the Greek word ekhinos, meaning “hedgehog”, referring to the spiny cone that gives them their common name. Botanically, echinacea are “composite flowers.” This means that what we consider to be the plant’s bloom is actually referred to as the “head”, and is composed of two kinds of flowers: “ray flowers” around the outside, which are what we refer to as the petals, and “disk flowers” at the center, making up the cone.
The image above shows clearly the two different types of flowers that make up a single bloom – you can even see that the individual disk flowers are blossoming, showing little yellow “flowers within a flower”. Each is capable of producing its own seed. When flowers are spent, consider leaving the seedheads in place. They provide food for birds, particularly goldfinches, and the interesting-looking dried cones provide winter interest.
Like most modern garden plants, echinacea have been extensively hybridized. They now come in a rainbow of colors from red to purple, including green! Some varieties have been bred to produce only ray flowers, resulting in a thick center of petals instead of the traditional cone. These varieties are incredibly attractive to home gardeners and are sold under names like “pom pom” and “double” echinaceas. Above is a photo of Echinacea ‘Pink Double Delight’, an example of such a hybrid, that was photographed in our Sensory Garden, against a backdrop of bright orange Helenium ‘Mardi Gras’ (also picture). Helenium is a smaller, less drought-tolerant prairie native related to coneflowers that looks marvelous nonetheless!
Aside from the beauty that echinacea add to the garden, native species are purported to have medicinal properties. Historically, the plant was used by some North American Plains tribes to treat cough, sore throat and headaches. Although many modern supplements made from echinacea exist, claims that any part of the plant have real medicinal benefit have yet to be borne out by research. Still, many people enjoy drinking tea made from the buds, leaves and sometimes roots of the echinacea plant in hopes of improving their health or just for enjoyment.
For all the reasons discussed here, echinacea makes an excellent addition to any outdoor space. It is easy to grow from seed or stock and will produce flowers in its first year. Rich soil is ideal, but lean towards poorer soil versus ground that is over-saturated: echinacea don’t like wet feet! All varieties readily adapts to a range of growing conditions. An area that transitions from morning sun to afternoon shade or vice versa mimics the natural habitat of these perennials, which grow wild along the border between forest and fields. However, they can continue to perform both in areas of full-sun and partial shade.
Seeds and transplants should be watered well, but will quickly grow to need minimal care. Eventually, you shouldn’t have to worry about supplemental watering except in years of extreme drought – as natives, echinacea have evolved to thrive in our climate. The same goes for fertilizers: these plants are lean, mean growing machines that ask for little and give back a lot.
Need more convincing? Once established, echinacea are deer-resistant and rarely suffer from disease. Birds feast on their seeds and their nectar-rich cones provide perfect landing pads for pollinators like bees and butterflies. Echinacea is also recommended for homeowners looking to “firescape”, a method of landscaping that creates defensible spaces around structures to reduce the risk of damage from fires. Because of their moisture content, lack of resins and clumping habit, these plants are naturally more fire-resistant.
Of course, echinacea aren’t the only “coneflowers” out there. The term is used more broadly to refer to a number of plants in the scientific tribe Heliantheae that exhibit the same bloom structure. Above are two other plants that sometimes go by this moniker: yellow Rudbeckia hirta, or black-eyed Susans, in the foreground, and Ratibida columnifera, called prairie coneflower or Mexican hat, in the background. Both are also North American natives with growing conditions similar to those of echinacea. Mix and match to create a beautiful but drought-tolerant, low-maintenance flowerbed like we’ve done here in our Sensory Garden!
I hope that in reading this article, you’ve learned something about our captivating friends the coneflowers. Need more inspiration? Don’t have the space to garden? Borrow ours! We’ve got plenty of both. Come see what’s growing at The Oregon Garden, get advice from our friendly horticulturalists or even get your hands dirty by becoming a volunteer. Most importantly, keep exploring and experiencing nature in a way that works for you.