By Jim Lakin, MD, Master Gardener
Daffodils are a distant dream come August. Tulips, peonies and Iris have had their hour upon the stage and are seen no more. How welcome are the coneflowers that splash waves of pink, yellow and purple across the simmering summer landscape.
Coneflowers, or Echinacea, are perennials native to the Midwest and quite hardy here in Minnesota. Of the three species—Pale Purple Coneflower (E. pallida), Yellow Purple Coneflower (E. paradoxa) and Purple Coneflower (E. purpurea) —Purple Coneflower is planted most widely. It grows easily from seed reaching two to four feet in maturity. It is very drought tolerant once established. Unlike its Pale Purple and Yellow Purple cousins who are prairie dwellers requiring full sun, Purple Coneflower does well in part shade. As you might expect, in the wild it is found in woodland borders and savannas as well as out on the prairie.
Purple Coneflower’s rosy pink flowers (actually sepals) surround an orange cone of disk flowers. The flowers themselves are rich in nectar. This makes them ideal for a pollinator garden. They provide a strategic food source for butterflies during a period of the year when many other nectar sources have dried up. As a plus, the seeds are prized by the American Goldfinch who may be a fall visitor to a planting. Bloom time is extensive here in Minnesota from mid-summer into fall. Purple Coneflower will self-seed easily, forming a dense border after a few years. Thus, it does well on a forest edge, along a partly shaded wall or fence, or a semi-shaded natural garden.
Purple Coneflower has become a victim of its popularity, however. A wide range of hybrids and cultivated varieties (cultivars) have been produced for the commercial trade. Many of these “improved” versions do not produce nectar. As such they are of no value to pollinators. If in doubt as to what you’re looking at is true “species” or a hybrid or cultivar it is best to ask your nursery expert before buying.
For more information try these links to the University of Minnesota Extension’s website:
Is a Cultivar as Good as the Native Plant Species for Pollinators
Creating a Butterfly Garden