CONEFLOWER

Above, common buckeyes nectar at a coneflower bloom. They are just one of the many pollinators attracted to the attractive, hearty coneflower. (Photo/Terry Johnson)

 

Some will argue the coneflower is our favorite native plant.  Although I cannot attest to the validity of this claim, it is indeed a prized member of my backyard plant community.

There are many reasons why I am so fond of the coneflower (Echinacea).  It flourishes in spite of my lack of gardening acumen.  Each year it produces a large crop of breathtaking blooms that seemingly last for weeks. Moreover, it does not require a lot of water and seems to prosper even during hot weather. 

I also appreciate the fact white-tailed deer usually refrain from making a meal of the coneflower’s foliage and flowers. And, if I needed another reason to admire the plant, it provides food for wildlife.

Long before the first European explorers began penetrating the seemingly endless North American wilderness, Native Americans recognized the coneflower as a medicinal plant. They used it to cure a wide variety of ailments. It was also used to treat the bite of a snake called “mad dog.” Nowadays the snake is more commonly referred to as the rattlesnake.

The reputed value of the coneflower to treat rattlesnake wounds was reported by members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. According to their journals when the party reached Fort Mandan in 1605 they collected coneflower plants and stored them away labeled as “Mad Dog Plant.”

Coneflowers are easy to grow. In our Monroe County backyard, my wife and I have been successful in establishing stands of this perennial by planting seeds and transplanting plants from one location to another. 

Whereas coneflowers are indeed native to North America, most are native to the Prairie States. The popularity of this beautiful native has prompted plant breeders to develop scores of hybrid varieties that vary in both size and flower color. In fact, each year since 2003 five or more hybrid varieties of the plant have been introduced. Consequently, you can purchase everything from double-flowered hybrids to dwarf varieties. Nowadays the blossoms of coneflower cultivars range from purple to white, pink, yellow, and green. This dizzying array of plants bear fanciful names such as Secret Affair, Avalanche, Coconut Lime, Cotton Candy, Fatal Attraction, Lilliput, Meringue and Milkshake.

I must admit I know nothing about the wildlife values of any of these new creations. We have always stuck with the native purple coneflower. This plant grows upwards of three feet tall. As its name suggests, it produces long purple petals that surround a burnt orange conical disk. As time goes by, the petals droop, leaving the disk standing well above the petals. This gives each blossom a profile shared by no other flower in our garden.

The flowers attract a number of butterflies, such as skippers, monarchs, and swallowtails. However, in our yard the most common butterfly visitors are common buckeyes. This is fine with us as, in spite of its lackluster name, this butterfly is uncommonly beautiful.

The biggest problem the butterflies have trying to nectar on our coneflowers is finding a space to feed. The reason for this is a host of native pollinators descends on the coneflowers showy flowers. In fact, in our yard, bumblebees, leafcutter bees, sweat bees and some of the smallest bees you can imagine are regular visitors to the blossoms. 

Bumblebees are particularly fond of coneflowers. It is not uncommon to see three to six or more bumblebees feeding on a single coneflower blossom.

After the petals eventually fall to the ground, the coneflowers value to other wildlife has not ended.  This is because the prickly seeds are relished by many songbirds. The American goldfinch’s fondness for coneflower seeds is well known. However, birds such as sparrows, eastern towhees, nuthatches, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, and northern cardinals also feed on them.

As you might expect, since the plant has so many wildlife admirers, in order to provide them with an abundance of food, coneflowers should be established in mass planting.  Such groupings are also visually more appealing.

It is not often you can find a plant that is attractive, easy to grow, beautiful and is a valuable wildlife food plant. The coneflower is such a plant. Consequently, it deserves a place in your Monroe County garden.

Terry Johnson is retired Program Manager of the Georgia Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. He has written the informative column ‘Monroe Outdoors’ for the Reporter for many years. His book, “A Journey to Discovery,” is available at The Reporter. Email him at tjwoodduck@bellsouth.net.