By Lois Chaplin
It may be seen on the roadside, in a friend’s garden and, almost certainly, in a garden designed to attract butterflies. Wherever purple coneflower appears, it’s sure to catch the eye. This beautiful native flower is sturdy in late spring and summer, often standing up to fierce thunderstorms. The sturdy stems hold purple flowers that seem to last for weeks, first opening to show the spiny central cone, then gradually getting larger as the petals expand. This is a fun flower to watch. By fall, only sculptural coneheads remain.
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a perennial that typically grows 2-4 feet tall. Two other species are native to Alabama but are not widely cultivated in gardens. According to the Alabama Plant Atlas, smooth purple coneflower (Echinacea laevigata) and pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) are classified as S2, meaning there are only six to 20 recorded locations where they are found in Alabama.
Because they are wildflowers — but are also showy and sturdy — you can use them in a traditional flower border or at the sunny edge of a wooded area. The stiff stems also make it a good cut flower to bring indoors. In summer, the plants attract bees and butterflies.
The bold blooms measure 2-4 inches in diameter, depending on the selection. Options include Bravado, Bright Star, White Swan (a white flower) and Pow Wow Wild Berry, which has more compact growth habit. New cultivars with vivid pink, orange and red flowers have entered the marketplace, along with double-flowered forms. These include Pink Poodle, Twilight, Flame Thrower, Sundown, Green Eyes and even yellow forms such as Mac ‘n Cheese and Harvest Moon.
Test a few in your garden for a year or two; some don’t have the lasting power of the older ones. The double-flowered forms are pretty, but the nectar is less accessible to bees and butterflies. The old-fashioned coneflowers produce seeds and often reseed themselves. In addition, finches and other small birds will feed on the seed cone in the fall. Some new, bright-colored hybrid coneflowers don’t produce seed. Know the difference, and research thoroughly if reseeding or bird feeding matters to you. Cutting the first flush of old blooms from the ones that do form seeds will often encourage a fresh flush of blooms.
Coneflowers grow in most soil types if the spot is well drained but can die in cold, soggy soil during winter. Plants bloom best in sun but will also flower in partial shade, just not as heavily. Deadheading encourages a longer blooming period, but leave some flowers on the plant at the end of the season to remain through winter as a source of seeds for the birds.
For gardeners who like to start plants from seed, keep the seed pack in the freezer at least two months to provide the chilling they need to sprout. Gardeners can also start the seeds outdoors in the fall. They will sprout when ready in the spring. For now, just look for pretty plants sold in garden centers to bring one of these beautiful Alabama natives home.