Compatible, Adaptable Coneflowers

A little more than 200 years ago, William Clark wrote in his travel journal, “I collected a Plant the root of which is a Cure for the Bite of a mad dog & Snake which I shall Send [to President Jefferson].” This amazing plant was our narrow-leaved purple coneflower, Echinacea angustifolia.

Echinacea are still often touted as medicinal in nature. Historically, coneflower potions have been used to treat such ailments as anthrax, blood poisoning, snakebites, skin infections, and the common cold. Due to their reputation, coneflowers have been referred to by other names, such as snakeroot and black sampson. In the 1700s, horses suffering from saddle sores were treated with an extract obtained from coneflower roots. However, this genus of nine distinct native species found in the United States is also highly valued for its splendid summer coloration, attractiveness to wildlife, hardy nature, and ease of cultivation.

Lovely and Local

The name Echinacea is derived from the Greek word echinos, or hedgehog, in reference to the flowers’ large, brown, cone-shaped seedheads that resemble the prickly spines of a frustrated hedgehog. Below the angry hedgehog portion are long, narrow, swept-back petals, which often appear as flowing skirts when blown about by warm summer breezes.

Coneflowers display a wide range of colors, depending upon the species and the genetic variation afforded by crosses that occur readily among Echinacea. White, orange, and brilliant magenta hues develop when the genetic pool varies. Because coneflowers are native to many areas, growing them can be a snap, even upon rocky glade habitats, during times of drought, or under other adverse weather conditions.

Five Sister Species

It is hard to pass by a garden filled with the brightly colored petals of purple coneflowers without stopping and marveling. One of five Echinacea species found in Missouri, purple coneflowers are a wildflower favorite among gardeners and landscape designers. Growing between 24 and 36 inches tall, Echinacea purpurea sports robust, dark brown flowerheads with pinkish-purple to reddish-purple petals and broadly ovate, dark green leaves. Occasionally, due to genetics, a rare form with white petals appears among the mixed myriad of purples and pinks within stands of this species.

Found in habitats such as upland prairies, sun-dappled openings in wooded forests, along stream banks, roadsides, and abandoned pasture lands, purple coneflowers occur naturally in all areas of Missouri except in the western edge of the Glaciated Plains and in the Mississippi Lowlands