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Echinacea Purpurea: Growing Purple Coneflower

Echinacea purpurea is a much loved and sought-after flowering plant to grow in the garden for flower arrangements, herbal teas, to attract butterflies, or simply to be admired for its architectural beauty.  The purple to lavender rays of its daisy-like flowers are perfectly suited to grow in cottage garden borders, in wide drifts among tall grasses, or as part of a prairie garden.  Whatever style you choose to grow your Echinacea purpurea, it is guaranteed to make a statement.

Wildlife gardens in North America benefit from the addition of purple coneflowers attracting native species of beneficial insects all summer such as pollinating bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies. Its deer-resistant nature makes it perfect for native wildlife gardens too. When flowers begin to fade it’s the turn of the small birds, especially finches to feast on the dried seed heads.

In traditional medicine, the dried flowers of Echinacea purpurea are an extremely popular herbal tea and well-known remedy for boosting the immune system against seasonal colds, flu, and chest infections amongst other ailments.

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Quick Care Guide

Echinacea purpurea with bee
Like other echinaceas, Echinacea purpurea is a bee magnet. Source: M. Martin Vicente
Common NameConeflower, purple coneflower
Scientific NameEchinacea purpurea
FamilyAsteraceae
Height & Spread4-5ft (120-150cm) high; 18-24in (45-60cm) spread
LightFull sun to partial shade
SoilWell-drained, sandy, clay, loam, silt
WaterDrought resistant
Pests & DiseasesSlugs, snails, vine weevil, and powdery mildew

All About Echinacea Purpurea

Purple coneflower
Purple coneflowers can create a beautiful display in the garden. Source: BarefootGardener

Echinacea, from the Greek ‘echino’ meaning spiky or prickly, is the genus of around nine echinacea species, purpurea being one. Each species has multiple varieties in all sizes and colors such as the pale creamy white flowers of ‘White Lustre’, the purple-red flower heads of ‘Bright Star’, and the deep pink flower with bright orange cones of ‘Robert Bloom’.

Echinacea is commonly known as coneflower or eastern purple coneflower but it is often referred to by its botanical name echinacea. The Echinacea purpurea species originates from the rocky hillsides, prairie grasslands, and woodlands of central and eastern United States. As a hardy clump-forming herbaceous perennial Echinacea purpurea is a tall pink to purple daisy-like flower, from the family, Asteraceae, with long-lasting blooms that are self-supporting and low maintenance.  Quantity and quality of blooms improve with maturity with plants growing flowers to 4-5ft (120-150cm) in height and foliage 18-24in (45-60cm) across. 

Purple cone flowers produce basal leaves around May that are dark green, long, ovate, deeply veined, and roughly textured. Flowering light green stems are stiff, upright, and with scattered white hairs bearing similar, but slightly smaller leaves. Single pink petalled flowers, sometimes tending toward lavender rays, 5in (12cm) across are produced with a bloom time from early summer to September with a central orange-brown prickly seedhead cone. Once the drooping rays surrounding the seed head fade, the flowers dry to form spiky brown globes. Seeds are small, brown, and wedged between the spikes making them difficult to harvest although plants will readily self-seed in late fall. The dried rigid stems remain upright throughout winter if not cut back while the foliage dies back remaining dormant until the following spring.

Echinacea has blackish tap roots with short non-invasive rhizomes. Although plants can be propagated by division, they do not tolerate disturbance well and can take a few years to recover and establish in new locations. Native Americans in North America use Echinacea purpurea to treat pain, coughs, colds, rheumatism, burns, and toothaches. All parts of the plant can be used medicinally.  

Planting

Closeup of Echinacea purpurea cone
An extreme closeup of an Echinacea purpurea cone. Source: Martin LaBar

Late spring after all risk of frost has passed is the best time of year to plant purple coneflower.  Grow echinacea in full sun to part shade in fertile well-drained soils either in the ground or in containers. Choose a container that is deep enough to accommodate the tap root and wide enough to allow this clump-forming perennial room to spread. Container-grown coneflowers will need to be watered more regularly than those grown in native soil.

Purple coneflower can be grown from seed, nursery stock, or by root cutting and plant divisions.  Seeds can be started indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost date and will require a period of cold stratification to aid germination. Placing seeds in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks before sowing should do the job. Harden plants off for at least a week to help them acclimatize to elements before planting out.

Store-bought nursery stock can be planted into their final growing positions straight away.  Simply dig a hole large enough to accommodate the root ball and plant at the same depth as in the pot. Divisions and established root cuttings should be planted in the same way. Space plants 18-24in apart.

Care

Echinacea purpurea in the shade
Echinacea purpurea can tolerate partial shade, but does enjoy sun. Source: jmunt

Once established, echinacea is easy to care for. Just in case, here is a complete guide to help you keep your flowers in great health, with healthy growth blooming flower heads through late summer.

Sun and Temperature

Echinacea purpurea enjoys a full sun position but will also grow in partial sun to light shade. Plants need a minimum of 4-6hrs direct sun to thrive in USDA zones 3 to 9. These are some of the only plants with a native range of this size. Echinacea is drought tolerant, heat resistant, and will survive light frosts. Protect new shoots from late spring frosts with a frost blanket or a bell-shaped cover.

Water and Humidity

Water the soil early in the morning to give plants plenty of time to absorb all that moisture before the full midday heat of the sun. Use soaker hoses, garden hoses, or a watering can with the water directed at the soil. Young plants should be grown in moist soil until settled into their new growing positions. Mature specimens have low water needs, only requiring irrigation when showing signs of heat stress or extreme drought. 

Soil

Eastern purple coneflower is adaptive to most soil types, even doing well in gravel, clay, and very sandy soil. For best results grow Echinacea purpurea in rich well-drained soil prepared with lots of organic matter. Recommended soil pH is 6 to 8.

Fertilizing

Too much nitrogen fertilizer when growing Echinacea purpurea can result in weak floppy plants that produce lots of wavy-lined emerald foliage at the expense of flowers.  A good mulch in late autumn and again in springtime with well-rotted steer manure or compost will provide enough nutrients to last the season. Alternatively sprinkle some fish meal, blood meal, and bone meal around the base of plants in spring and water it well for lovely pink and purple flowers in late summer.

Pruning

Deadhead spent purple flowers throughout the flowering season to encourage lots of new flowering stems. Seed heads can be left for the birds in late fall/winter and cut back in spring when new shoots appear.

Propagation

Echinacea purpurea can be propagated by seed, plant division, or root cuttings. Seeds should be harvested from your healthiest stock and stored somewhere cool like the refrigerator to simulate winter cold stratification. This helps with germination. Good quality store-bought seeds can also be used. Sow seeds 4-6 weeks before the last frost date on top of moist soil, 2 inches apart if sowing in seed trays, and cover lightly with some sieved soil. Keep the soil moist and at a temperature of around 55ºF (13ºC) until germination which can take between 5 and 20 days.  Pot up seedlings individually into 3in (9cm) pots and grow on, only planting outside after all risk of frost has passed.

Propagate eastern purple coneflower by division in spring or autumn, minimizing damage to the tap root.  Dig a large, deep hole around a mature plant and gently tease the entire root ball from the ground. Split the root ball into the desired number of new plants either by breaking sections apart by hand or dividing with a saw or knife. Plant each new section immediately into a prepared planting hole amended with lots of fresh compost. Echinacea does not always transplant well and may take time to settle into its new planting location.

Take root cuttings in late fall to early winter when the plant is dormant. At the edge of a mature echinacea plant, dig down until the roots are exposed and choose a healthy section 1 to 3in long with evidence of the previous season’s shoots attached to the root. Cut the section using a sharp, clean knife and plant into a pot prepared with a mix of damp compost and sand or perlite. Lightly cover the cutting, keep moist, and l leave somewhere cool, out of direct sunlight until new shoots appear in spring.

Troubleshooting

Purple coneflower with moth
Other pollinators are drawn to E. purpurea as well. Source: BarefootGardener

Echinacea purpurea is a tough cookie, tolerating heat, frost, and drought. It’s deer-resistant too. There are a few things that can stop it in its tracks. Read on to find out what they are and how to overcome them.

Growing Problems

Echinacea can take a few seasons to establish and to start flowering which can often be seen as a growing problem. This is completely normal. Coneflowers just need time to mature before bloom time when they begin producing those awesome daisy blooms. The best action to take for this is to double-check that you’ve provided your plants with the best possible growing conditions along with a little patience!

If your purple coneflower looks a bit lackluster then check that you are not overwatering, leading to potential root rot or maybe the growing location isn’t deep enough to accommodate the plant’s long tap root. Allow soil to dry out between watering and if you think the location isn’t right, then replant in a new location. Echinacea does not transplant well so only do this as a last resort.

Pests

Slugs and snails find young fresh purple coneflower foliage particularly delicious, devouring early spring shoots in one evening and leaving a glistening slime trail as evidence. They mostly feed at night and are more active in the damp weather of early summer. Reduce slug and snail populations by removing their daytime hideaways and breeding grounds like damp wet wood and weed matting. Remove by hand on sight (best results at night) or leave beer or oatmeal traps that can be collected and discarded in the morning. If all else fails use organic slug/snail pellets. Read the label carefully to ensure they will not harm other wildlife.

The dreaded vine weevil instills fear in most gardeners. They mostly affect plants grown in containers but those grown in the ground can also fall victim to the evil weevil. Little notches cut along leaf edges can be a sign of an adult vine weevil.  This is superficial damage and will not affect plant health. However, where there are adults there are soon-to-be larvae that cause damage to roots and often the death of the whole plant. Affected plants will begin to wilt, dying shortly after.

Vine weevils have become resistant to many pesticides which are often restricted to use in containers and not on open ground. Adults come out at night and can be collected and destroyed. Use sticky traps around the base to catch weevils as they fall. Plants affected by the larvae can be saved if caught early by digging them up and washing the roots of all soil. Repot into a new container with fresh compost. Nematode drenches can be used in both pots and open ground to control vine weevil larvae but usually requires repeated treatments in one season.

Thankfully, echinacea is a deer-resistant plant, making it a suitable addition to naturalized areas in every climate zone in North America. 

Diseases

Powdery mildew is a fungal disease that can affect echinacea grown in hot, humid, shaded conditions. It grows as a white thick dust on leaves and stems, inhibiting photosynthesis and hindering growth. Foliage eventually turns yellow and dies. To prevent powdery mildew, maintain good garden hygiene by removing infected foliage to prevent the disease from spreading and reinfection in subsequent years. Provide adequate sun and avoid conditions the disease thrives on. Give adequate space to allow good air circulation. Spray with an organic fungicide such as sulfur, neem oil, or potassium bicarbonate, prior to or on first sight of disease.

Frequently Asked Questions

Side view of Echinacea purpurea
A side view of Echinacea purpurea. Source: byb64

Q: What is Echinacea purpurea used for?

A:  Echinacea can be planted in the garden to attract pollinators – such as butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees – and as an ornamental border plant.  Plants are also grown commercially to produce natural herbal remedies.

Q: Does echinacea come back every year?

A:  Echinacea is a hardy herbaceous perennial growing back each year.

Q: Is Echinacea purpurea the same as echinacea?

A:  Echinacea purpurea is one of around nine species of echinacea often referred to collectively by the common name echinacea.

Q: Can you eat Echinacea purpurea?

A:  All parts of Echinacea purpurea are edible. The purple flower petals are particularly attractive sprinkled over salads. As with all medicinal plants, caution should be taken when consuming any part of a plant.