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One of My Favorite Native Plants- Coneflower

by Ed Powers
As a child growing up in the Dakota’s, Nebraska, and as an adult, in Michigan, we grew coneflower in our gardens.  They were tall, extremely beautiful, easy to grow and they really set off our gardens. The scientific name for the coneflower is Echinacea.  I have tried to grow them at 8,000 feet, where we live now, with a great degree of difficulty.  But, after 3 years of trying, we are finally seeing results.

Echinacea is a group of herbaceous flowering plants in the daisy family. The genus Echinacea has ten species, which are commonly called coneflowers. They are found only in eastern states to the eastern plains of central North America, where they grow in moist to dry prairies as well as open wooded areas. They have large, showy heads of composite flowers, blooming from early to late summer. The generic name is derived from the Greek word ἐχῖνος (echinos), meaning "hedgehog", due to the spiny central disk, referencing the spiky appearance and feel of the flower heads.  

These flowering plants and their parts have different uses. Some species are cultivated in gardens for their showy flowers. Echinacea purpurea is used in folk medicine. Two of the species, E. tennesseensis and E. laevigata, are listed in the United States as endangered species.
White Coneflower- Courtesy of American

Echinacea species are herbaceous, drought-tolerant perennial plants growing up to 140 cm, or 4 feet, in height. They grow from taproots, except E. purpurea, which grows from a short caudexwith fibrous roots. They have erect stems that, in most species, are unbranched. Both the basaland cauline (stem) leaves are arranged alternately. The flowers are collected together into single rounded heads at the ends of long peduncles. Like all members of the sunflower family, the flowering structure is a composite inflorescence, with rose-colored (rarely yellow or white) florets arranged in a prominent, somewhat cone-shaped head – "cone-shaped" because the petals of the outer ray florets tend to point downward (are reflexed) once the flower headopens, thus forming a cone. Plants are generally long lived.

Research concluded that of the 40 genetically diverse populations of Echinacea studied, there were ten distinct species.  Only Echinacea angustifolia is native to Colorado.
·         Echinacea angustifolia – Narrow-leaf coneflower
·         Echinacea atrorubens– Topeka purple coneflower
·         Echinacea laevigata– Smooth coneflower, smooth purple coneflower
·         Echinacea pallida – Pale purple coneflower
·         Echinacea paradoxa– Yellow coneflower, Bush's purple coneflower
·         Echinacea purpurea– Purple coneflower, eastern purple coneflower
·         Echinacea sanguinea– Sanguine purple coneflower
·         Echinacea serotina– Narrow-leaved purple coneflower
·         Echinacea simulata– Wavyleaf purple coneflower
·         Echinacea tennesseensis – Tennessee coneflower

Purple Coneflower- Courtesy of American  
Echinacea, as a medicinal plant, has a long and intriguing history of use. For hundreds of years, the Plains Indians used it as an antiseptic, an analgesic, and to treat poisonous insect and snake bites, toothaches, sore throat, wounds and communicable diseases such as mumps, smallpox, and measles. It was also used by the Cheyenne, Choctaw, Comanche, Dakota, Meskwaki Fox, Pawnee, Sioux, and Omaha tribes. Early settlers then adopted the therapeutic uses of Echinacea root, and it has been used as an herbal remedy in the United States ever since.

In 1762, it was used as a treatment for saddle sores on horses.  Dr. H.C.F. Meyer learned of the uses of Echinacea from the native Indians of Nebraska around 1870, and later introduced it to a doctor in Europe. Dr. J. S. Leachman of Sharon, Oklahoma wrote in the October 1914 issue of "The Gleaner," that Echinacea root was used for nearly every sickness with good results. It was also found to be the secret ingredient in many tonics and blood purifiers of the era.

Red Coneflower- Courtesy of American
Chemists and pharmacologists became interested in Echinacea and many constituents are now known, such as polysaccharides, echinacoside, cichoric acid, keto alkene and alkylamide. The extracts exhibit immunostimulant properties and are mainly used in the prophylaxis and therapy of colds, flu and septic complaints. Although there are over 400 publications concerning the plant and dozens of preparations of Echinacea on the market, the true identity of the active principles still remains open.

Echinacea was included in the U. S. National Formulary from 1916 to 1950, although papers published by the Journal of the American Medical Association described it as a useless quack remedy.  Echinacea became known in Europe around 1895. Many research studies done by doctors in Germany indicated that Echinacea is largely effective mostly by increasing the number of white blood cells, thus boosting the immune system and thereby increasing the body's ability to fight infections.

I have enjoyed growing and cultivating Echinacea, and, next to Columbine and Roses, it has become one of my favorites.

Resources US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health
The Spruce
Colorado State University/ Garden Notes
Sunset magazine/ Your guide to growing Coneflowers
University of Pittsburgh
USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center

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