What defines something as classic? Dictionaries often use phrases like “something of lasting worth”, “timeless quality” or “a perfect example of a particular style” when describing a classic. When I think about classic wildflowers, perhaps no other species comes as close to this description as the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). One of the most popular wildflowers planted in gardens throughout the United States, purple coneflower is a textbook-perfect specimen of the asteraceae family. Its highly recognizable central cone and long purple rays put on a showy display that’s especially magnificent in mass groupings. In addition to its popularity in the garden, purple coneflower has healing properties that are still used around the world.
A Native Favorite
Purple coneflower has always been a favorite of mine. The soft, elegant lines of the rays provide a stunning contrast to its hard, spikey cone. In fact it’s the prickly spikes of its conical seedhead that give this wildflower its scientific name. “Echin” is Latin for spiny or prickly, and the word “ekhinos” is Greek for sea urchin or hedgehog. When combined with the Latin suffix “acea”, the literal translation of Echinacea purpurea is “purple hedgehog-like”. Seems like an accurate name to me. As a native perennial it can be found in its natural habitat from northeast Texas up into Ohio, Illinois, Iowa and Virginia and south into Florida. In wildflower gardens it’s easily adaptable to most places in the United States.
The Healing Properties of Echinacea
Long before purple coneflower was used in ornamental gardens, Native Americans used it medicinally to treat everything from malaria, blood poisoning, fever, infections and external wounds. Many people claim that echinacea is the closest thing to a cure for the common cold there is. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, echinacea contains several chemicals that play a role in its therapeutic effects. The roots of purple coneflower contain high concentrations of volatile oils while the above-ground plant parts contain polysaccharides which stimulate the immune system. While purple coneflower might not eliminate cold symptoms, studies have shown that echinacea can help you feel better faster especially when taken as soon as you start feeling sick. Echinacea is available in many forms, the most common being capsules. Ointments, extracts and teas are also used to unlock the healing benefits of purple coneflower.
Growing and Maintaining Purple Coneflower
In the garden Echinacea purpurea is an easy plant to establish and maintain. It prefers full sun but can also tolerant part shade. Plant it in well-drained soil and water regular until it’s fully established. Once mature, its deep taproot will make it quite drought tolerant. Regular deadheading during the summer will ensure constant blooms into early autumn. Purple coneflower can be cut back at the end of the season or left upright to provide some interest to the winter garden. Its seedheads will also attract songbirds during the winter and beneficial pollinators during the spring and summer. Purple coneflower looks great when partnered with finer, softer foliaged plants and grasses but is especially stunning in mass plantings. It will eventually grow anywhere from 2-4 feet tall and about two feet wide. Divide it every couple years to keep it healthy and blooming.