Purple Coneflower
Echinacea purpurea
Aster family (Asteraceae)

Description: This is a native perennial plant up to 3½' tall that branches occasionally. The stems have small purple streaks and scattered white hairs. The alternate or opposite leaves are up to 6" long and 3" across. They are broadly lanceolate, lanceolate, or ovate, with widely spaced teeth along the margins. The upper surface of the leaves is often dark green and has sparse white hairs. The petioles are short and slightly winged. Many of the upper stems terminate in a single composite flower. This daisy-like flower is about 3-4" across. It consists of a large central cone of yellowish brown or reddish brown disk florets, surrounded by 10-20 purple ray florets. The central cone is somewhat flattened but prickly, while the ray florets are long and tend to droop downward. The flowers may release a slight fragrance in strong sunlight. The blooming period begins in mid-summer and lasts about a month, after which there is a temporary dormancy. Later, some plants may bloom again during the early fall. The dark achenes of the central cone are long and flat, without tufts of hair, resembling a pincushion of needles. The root system is fibrous and has short woody rhizomes. Eventually, small clumps of plants may form.

Cultivation: The preference is full or partial sun, and moist to mesic conditions. Growth is best in fertile loam, but the soil can contain some gravel or clay. Foliar disease is rarely troublesome. While there is some drought resistance, the entire plant will wilt if the soil becomes too dry, particularly in strong sunlight. This plant is very easy to grow if the preceding requirements are met.

Range & Habitat: Purple Coneflower occurs primarily in central and NE Illinois, and a few counties in southern Illinois. While often grown in gardens around homes and businesses, it is usually an uncommon plant in native habitats. However, Purple Coneflower is often used in prairie restorations, where it may be locally common. Some populations, particularly in the Chicago area, are probably plants that have escaped from cultivation. Habitats include moist to mesic black soil prairies, edges and openings in floodplain forests, savannas, thickets, and limestone glades.

Faunal Associations: The flowers are visited by long-tongued bees, bee flies, Halictine bees, butterflies, and skippers. Among long-tongued bees, are such visitors as honeybees, bumblebees, Miner bees, and large Leaf-Cutting bees. Butterfly visitors include Monarchs, Fritillaries, Painted Ladies, Swallowtails, Sulfurs, and Whites. The caterpillars of the butterfly Chlosyne nycteis (Silvery Checkerspot) feed on the foliage, as well as the the caterpillars of the moths Eynchlora acida (Wavy-Lined Emerald) and Eupithecia miserulata (Common Eupithecia). The Eastern Goldfinch occasionally eats the seeds.

Comments: This is striking plant when it is in full bloom, as the flowers are large and colorful. There is a cultivated form, called 'White Swan,' that is often grown in flower gardens, but plants with white flowers are very rare in the wild. Purple Coneflower seems to attract more than its fair share of butterflies, particularly in sunny, sheltered areas. It can be distinguished from Echinacea pallida (Pale Purple Coneflower) by its broader leaves, bushier habit, and later blooming period.