One of my favorite native perennials is the purple coneflower. These plants are long-blooming, upright and nutritious powerhouses for birds and butterflies.
The big flowering types have the scientific name Echinacea purpurea, which describes their purple-pink flowers. And just because purple is the second name, this species also comes in white, such as ‘White Swan’.
But there are a couple of other native, perennial coneflowers in the Echinacea family that are just as garden worthy but less well known.
The pale coneflower (E. pallida) and the Tennessee coneflower (E. tennesseensis) are pink, but more delicate than their purple cousins. For something completely different, there’s the Ozark coneflower (E. paradoxa), the only Echinacea that is yellow, thus the ‘paradox’ in its name.
Coneflowers get their name from the center part of the flower, which forms a nectar- and seed-rich, chocolate brown cone. Butterflies, hummingbirds and bees are frequent visitors. The cones also are a favorite of finches, which devour the seed heads all season, and when the plants are left standing, during the winter.
A long-lasting flower in the garden or the vase, coneflowers are not at all fussy about where they grow, thriving in prairies, along riverbanks and in our yards. They do best in full sun, but will tolerate light shade. They also prefer average or infertile soil that is well drained. Soil that is too rich will cause cornflowers to flop. Soil that doesn’t drain well may cause the plants to rot.
This was the second summer for the pale coneflower in my garden. Its petals are a pale pink and much more fine than the purple coneflower. The petals tend to reticulate, or bend backward as the plant ages. It gets about 30 inches tall and has stiff, deep burgundy stems. Its long, slender leaves are not hairy like their purple cousin. This plant can be found at garden centers, but usually not in great numbers. Online retailers and seed merchants also carry the plant.
The Tennessee coneflower, which grows in only a few, specific places in the Volunteer state, is considered an endangered species. However, plant breeders have developed ‘Rocky Top’ Tennessee coneflower, a cultivar that is widely available. This coneflower’s petals gently curve forward and are not as long as the purple coneflower or the pale coneflower. It gets about 24 inches tall.