As the Woodrow Wilson Foundation put it, the coneflower "resembles a black-eyed susan dipped in raspberry juice." Coneflowers are becoming popular in gardens for their bright color, pest-free nature and their ability to thrive on neglect. However, gardeners did not originally celebrate coneflowers for their color and toughness; the perennial was, first and foremost, a medicinal crop.
Coneflowers attract butterflies.
Coneflowers are a family of plants under the scientific name Echinacea. The perennial has narrow, toothed leaves and large, long-petaled flowers from June until October. The flower colors can be white, pink or purple and are carried singly on tall stems, the stems often reaching 4 feet high. The brown to orange center of the flower is made of multiple florets in an upright cone shape, giving the flower its common name. The scientific name means ‘hedgehog’ in Greek, referring to the prickly cone.
Herbalists use both buds and roots.
The Native Americans used coneflower plants for toothache, colds, sore throats and as an analgesic. In the 1870s, a patent medicine salesman named H. C. F. Meyer marketed a coneflower concoction as a cure for pain, disease and snakebites, becoming one of the first snake-oil salesmen. The medical community took notice and began serious study of the coneflower.
Herbal companies market echinacea as a cold remedy.
Coneflower’s (Echinacea purpurea) medicinal popularity began in Europe instead of its native North America. Dr. Gerhard Madaus, a German herbalist, harvested the seeds of Echinacea purpurea during a visit to the United States, mistaking the plant for Echinacea angustifolia. After studying the plant, European herbalists commonly prescribed Echinacea purpurea to support the immune system until the onset of antibiotics. Consumers still use prepared Echinacea extracts as a cold remedy, energy booster and for general well-being. Because of the supplement’s popularity, illegal harvesters damage wild populations of coneflower, digging and selling the roots.
Coneflowers are prairie natives and prefer dry, average soils and sunny exposures. Too much water kills the otherwise tough perennials. Plant seeds in fall, as the seeds require 90 days of cold to germinate. Divide coneflowers every five years. Herbalists harvest coneflower roots in autumn when the plant is 3 years old and dry the newly-opened summer flowers.
Black-eyed susans complement purple coneflowers.
‘Coneflower’ is the common name for Echinacea, but other plants claim the name as well. Western coneflower (Rudbeckia occidentalis ‘Black Beauty’) has only a tall central cone, bare of surrounding petals. Gardeners regionally call black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia fulgada), another drought-resistant garden perennial with bright yellow petals, a coneflower.