Perennial herb with one to several slender, hairy stems growing from a horizontal rootstock. Flowerheads with 6–15 drooping yellow ray florets to 3 inches long. The disk rises conelike above the rays, reaching about 1 inch in length. It starts out gray, then turns brown as the florets open. Blooms May–September. Leaves pinnately divided into 3–7 segments, narrowly lanceolate, toothed.
Similar species: Of the two other prairie coneflowers (genus Ratibida) in Missouri, only one is likely to be encountered. Longhead prairie coneflower, or Mexican hat (R. columnifera), is scattered in the western half of the state. It grows from a taproot, and its conelike disk reaches 2 or even 2¾ inches long. Other Missouri plants called coneflowers include 5 species of Echinacea and 9 species of Rudbeckia.