When I was so much younger than today, I used to jump into projects two feet forward, head a little behind. The purple coneflowers that are rising so regally in this hot, dry summer remind me of one of those days. The purple coneflower, or echinacea purpurea, was one of the few hardy, robust, blooming plants in my small, neglected garden when I read an article about how powerful the it is at boosting the immune system. Ever the Earth Mother, I dug up a giant clump and took the roots for a tonic. I followed the recipe and let the roots sit in an alcohol-based concoction for six months, after which I drained the liquid. The only problem was that none of my children or my husband would go near the muddy, foul-smelling tonic. Only later did I learn how to properly wash and cut up the roots.
Medicinal lore is only one of the reasons that the purple coneflower is one of our most popular native wildflowers. It gives in so many ways. Drought tolerant, it provides a show during hot, dry summers and blooms longer than most perennials, from summer through autumn. It can be used as an accent or a cut flower.
The purple coneflower is ideal for the middle or back border as it grows from 75 to 120 cm tall and spreads 45 to 60 cm wide anywhere from zones 3 to 9. The purple, daisy-like flowers rest on coarse dark green leaves with an orange-brown central cone. The Latin name, echinacea comes from the Greek echinos, meaning hedgehog as the flowering heads are cone shaped. Petals often droop down in a graceful pattern.
Master Gardener Susan Lipchak, one of the many gardeners featured in Gardening from a Hammock, explains that there are now many hybrids of Echinacea available in orange, pink, yellow, white and lime green, and different flower shapes, but she prefers the tried and true native.
Bees and butterflies are attracted to the Echinacea purpurea, and the seed heads are attractive to American goldfinches during the fall and winter. “The sight of snow capping the seed heads during the winter is an unexpected bonus,” she says.
Aldona Satterthwaite, executive director at the Toronto Botanical Garden, also selected Echinacea purpurea, but the ‘Vintage Wine’ cultivar. This species has large purple-red flowers with a reddish-brown centre cone and non-drooping petals.
Echinacea purpurea is one of the star plants selected by 17 expert gardeners in Gardening from a Hammock by Ellen Novack and Dan Cooper. Gardening from a Hammock is an easy-to-use book describing how to create a fabulous, four-season garden using low-maintenance plants. It’s loaded with tips and has a botanical reference guide.