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 region of the state.
While purple coneflowers require soils with some moisture, others coneflowers such as Echinacea simulata, or glade coneflower, thrive upon the harsh, dry barrens, bald knobs and ridges typically found in the Ozarks region.
Absent from most of Missouri, except for the southeastern corner of the state and Dunklin County in the Bootheel, glade coneflowers enjoy life in the sun. Growing where many plants would shrivel up and die due to dry, harsh conditions, this species is at home upon Missouri’s sun-bathed limestone and dolomite glades, savannas, and bluff tops. Similar in appearance to pale purple coneflower, glade coneflowers display pink flowers in a shade intermediate between purple coneflower and pale purple coneflower. Habitat preference and bright lemon-colored pollen help to set this species apart from its relatives.
Pale purple coneflower, Echinacea pallida, which is usually lighter in color than purple coneflower and glade coneflower, is considered the most widespread Echinacea in Missouri. Like most coneflowers in our state, it is absent from the Bootheel region. Pale coneflower is slender in all respects, but is far from being a shrinking violet. Flowerheads with light pink to nearly white petals sit proudly atop 30- to 36-inch-tall stiff stems adorned with only a few long, narrow, rough-textured leaves. When in full bloom, the fresh white pollen of this species is carried from plant to plant on the tiny feet of bees, butterflies, and other pollinating insects.
Echinacea pallida prefers dry, sunny habitats such as glades, rocky savannas, native upland prairies, roadsides, and railroad right-of-ways. Occasionally, outdoor enthusiasts who happen upon an old pasture, field, or wooded clearing may be delighted with a blooming population during a spring trek in late May into June. There is nothing quite like a warm, gentle spring breeze, the rhythmic melody of songbirds, and a patch of butterfly-adorned coneflowers to sooth your senses.
Another Missouri coneflower species often sought by herbal collectors is yellow coneflower, Echinacea paradoxa. With vibrant yellow sunray petals and deep brown, bristly cone centers, the yellow coneflower showcases a dramatically different color scheme than that of its purple and pink cousins.
Endemic to the Ozarks, bright yellow coneflowers may be found primarily growing upon dry dolomite and limestone glades and savannas and occasionally roadsides, especially where a highway cuts through a limestone or dolomite hillside or bald knob.
June is the perfect time of year to check out this spectacular 1- to 3-foot-tall wildflower while taking a hike along a designated trail such as those within Caney Mountain Conservation Area in Ozark County. Here, yellow coneflowers may be found growing in association with other glade wildflowers and prairie grasses. As the summer sun beats down upon the bald knobs and rocky summits of the glade, field sparrows, prairie warblers, and collard lizards dart amidst the maze of sparse vegetation, hardy wildflowers, and dolomite stones.
Poach Not, Want Not
It is probable that back in Captain Clark’s day, all species of coneflowers were more abundant than they are today. Narrow-leaved coneflower, the species described in his historical travel journal, is found today growing naturally in Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas. It is believed to have been introduced to our state and currently has a historical ranking in Missouri, with this coneflower being last documented by Viktor Muhlenbach in St. Louis County in the extreme eastern region of the state. Throughout North America it is uncommon to come upon the species, which prefers dry, rocky habitats adjacent to railroads. Adorned with pink flowers and bright yellow pollen, narrow-leaved Coneflower, Echinacea angustifolia, superficially resembles other pink to purple coneflowers. It is only with careful scientific examination of entire plants that positive identification can be made.
Because of their acclaim as herbal remedies, Echinacea are often pursued by unscrupulous plant poachers who seek to sell the roots in the black market herbal trade. The illegal digging of wild stands of coneflowers leaves its ugly mark upon the landscape and robs both wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts of the plants’ outstanding qualities. Because of widespread abuse of Missouri’s Echinacea and many other native wildflowers, laws protecting wild growing populations have been enacted which make it illegal to dig plants from our roadways and public lands.
Echinacea, like all of our wildflowers, should never be dug from wild populations. Due to root structure and environmental nutrient associations, many native plants do not survive the stress of such a move. For those desiring coneflowers of their own, several of today’s nurseries carry not only Echinacea seed, but also first- and second-year perennial plants for your personal native garden collection.
Spring and early fall are the best times to work on a perennial bed of coneflowers. From seed, Echinacea take two years to bloom, but once established, perform delightful eye-catching displays for many years. They self-sow readily and also often produce offshoots that may be divided from the parent to grow into new independent plants.
Coneflowers are a great choice for large mass plantings and are garden compatible with a variety of our other native wildflowers, including butterfly-weed, black-eyed susans, beardtongues, and native prairie grasses. To keep native populations truly native it is a good idea to obtain seed or plants that are cultivated from the genetic pool found here, rather than from plants of other states.
Native coneflowers are an important piece in the natural environment puzzle, and they even help other species to thrive. Robber flies have been observed using coneflower heads as places to lay their eggs. As adults, regal fritillary butterflies depend upon coneflowers as a nectar source.
Listed on Missouri’s Watch List, the regal fritillary is in danger of becoming extirpated in the state. Its population status throughout North America is also in peril, due to loss in quality prairie habitat. By preserving intact prairie lands abundant with wildflowers such as Echinacea, the regal fritillary and other species have a better chance for survival.
Echinacea boast more than just pretty heads. Gardeners prize them for a long list of outstanding qualities, including their ability to attract butterflies and hummingbirds, durability as cut flowers, and appeal to native songbirds such as goldfinches that feast upon their seed heads during colder months.
Even after their summer color has faded away, their robust nature shines through during winter and adds architectural beauty to snow-adorned garden beds and borders. With all of their outstanding qualities, coneflowers are compatible with a variety of landscape designs and have a little of something for everyone.
Tried and True Missouri Native Plants
Puzzled about which native plants will work best in your yard? Find the answer in Tried and True: Missouri Native Plants for Your Yard, which showcases more than 100 plants native to Missouri. In addition to colorful photos, this guide groups plants into sections that include vines, ferns, grasses and sedges, perennials, shrubs and trees, both large and small, and makes it easy to locate plants that fill a specific need. There also are tips for getting started with native plants and a chart that suggests native plant alternatives for frequently used yard plants. With a little planning, you’ll have flowers blooming from very early spring until late fall. Perhaps more importantly, you will be creating a habitat that feeds and shelters desirable wildlife. Available for $6 from Department of Conservation Nature Shops and online at mdcnatureshop.com.