The Purple Coneflower
MISSOURI NATIVE SPECIES | July 30, 2020
The final 2020 installment of my Missouri Native Species Collection features the very recognizable Purple Coneflower. Last July we explored Echinacea paradoxa, the perplexing Echinacea with yellow petals. Echinacea purpurea is the more common coneflower species featuring vibrant, magenta petals. A showy prairie perennial, the Purple Coneflower has a long history of cultivation and medicinal use by Native Americans and early American settlers.
Characteristics of the Purple Coneflower
Commonly referred to as Echinacea, the Hedgehog Coneflower, and Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea is of the Asteraceae (daisy) family and is a native species to North America. Coneflowers are widespread throughout the Ozark region and can be found in prairies, open woods, along roadsides, and in pastures.
Purple Coneflower is an herbaceous perennial, growing up to 3 feet tall at maturity. Its large flowers bloom during the months of June through August, growing up to 5 inches in diameter. The center of the flower features a pronounced, central spiny disk. Contained within this disk are small, hermaphroditic individual florets.
Like its close relatives Echinacea purpurea possesses petiolate basal leaves, dark green in coloring and rough-toothed around the edges. Purple Coneflower tends to prefer moister soils compared to other coneflower species. With finely branched roots and long stalks, it thrives as a boundary plant.
A very rare cultivation of Purple Coneflower is the White Swan variety, a coneflower with white petals. The White Swan Coneflower is rarely found naturally.
Echinacea is a great source of honey nectar for butterflies and bees, and its seeds continue to nourish small birds well past its blooming season. Dead flowers remain intact throughout the wintering months and its seeds are highly coveted by Goldfinches. The tall stalks also serve as a shelter for insects.
A colonial transplant from England, 18th Century botanist John Clayton extensively researched Echinacea purpurea in his studies of plants native to the Virginias. A pioneer of American botany, Clayton botanized the flora of Virginia and sent specimens and manuscripts across the world to Mark Catesby, the English naturalist that inspired Clayton to study botany.
Catesby would pass Clayton’s findings along to Dutch botanist, John Frederik Gronovius. Overwhelmed with the quantity of specimens he received from Catesby and later directly from Clayton himself, Gronovius enlisted the help of a much younger Carl Linneas to help categorize and name each species. Controversially, without Clayton’s knowledge and permission Gronovius would later publish Clayton’s findings within his famed work, Flora Virginica.
Native Americans (the Cheyenne, Dakota, Crow, Omaha, Ponca, and Comanche, to name a few) harvested purple Echinacea for its abundance of medicinal applications. Native Americans used juice and coneflower mash to treat a variety of ailments ranging from common colds, toothaches, sore throats, burns and rashes, coughs, and even measles. Early Americans used a variety of echinacea to even treat the symptoms of poisoning by insect and snakebites, as well as sexually transmitted diseases.
Early American settlers would eventually learn and adopt the many uses of coneflower from Native Americans. In the late 1800’s Echinacea was first used in pharmaceutics by German native H.C.F. Meyer as “Meyer’s Blood Purifier“, a sort of snake oil concoction claiming to cure everything from typhoid to syphilis. At a time when new diseases and sicknesses were ravaging European transplants in America, many people bought into these “miracle cures” when most often, the science was bogus or even dangerous.
Though coneflower probably did not cure serious illnesses, the plant does possess compounds that are beneficial to medicine. The pharmaceutical industry continues to utilize Purple Coneflower today for its ability to promote blood circulation, and has even been implemented into chemotherapy medications.
With its long history in the Americas serving as a remedy to human ailments, food and shelter for birds and insects, and as a beautiful and showy garden container, Purple Coneflower is much loved by gardeners and anthophiles alike.
Sources: Missouri Department of Conservation, Missouri Botanical Garden, Wikipedia, United States Department of Agriculture, A.Vogel, PubMed.gov.
Technical: Canon 5D mk4 + 100mm f/2.8L, Fujifilm x100V