Echinacea means cold relief to some people. Capsules made from the plant are a staple at stores stocking herbal remedies. Environmentalists and activists think of Echinacea in the context of habitat restoration and use it to provide food for pollinators. Newbies embrace Echinacea because they’re so easy to grow, while plant fanatics have spent the last decade snatching up new hybrids and going coneflower crazy for plants such as ‘Evening Glow’ (bi-color pink and yellow petals) and ‘Pink Double Delight’ (bright pink petals & soft, cushiony center).
Really, regardless of your gardening style or level of experience, it’s hard not to be excited about Echinacea! They’re drought-tolerant, birds and butterflies love them, they don’t scramble through the garden eating up every inch of available space, they will grow in terrible soil, and they require little maintenance. I’m certainly in love.
Coneflowers in Grandma’s Garden
Echinacea plants are native to the eastern half of the United States, and they grow natively from Texas up to North Dakota and eastward to the Atlantic Ocean. However, they’ll flourish in just about any garden, continent-wide, given the right conditions.
I’m sure my first experience with Echinacea was walking through my grandma’s garden. She always called them “coneflowers,” (which is their common name). Grandma was all about flowers—showy phlox and easy-to-grow zinnias. She let hummingbird and black-eyed Susan vines go wild. I’m not sure she ever uttered a botanical name in her life.
For something to earn a spot in the garden it had to offer a few qualities: showy, colorful flowers, easy to grow, and a favorite of butterflies. She wanted her garden to be a source of cut flowers and butterfly nectar. It tickled her to no end, sending me pictures of herself standing next to some giant plant, a butterfly perched on the blooms next to her shoulders.
Because they are plants from my childhood, growing Echinacea gives me a link to my mom (who also grew coneflowers) and my grandma, ensuring there’s always a piece of them at home with me.
Echinacea is a genus of 11 species of herbaceous perennials native to North America. The botanical name comes from the Greek word echinos, which means “spiny” like a hedgehog. That, and the plant’s common name, refer to the spiky cone of seeds that form the center of the flowerheads. Echinacea purpurea, the purple coneflower (even though it has pinkish petals) is one of the most commonly-grown species. There are now dozens of hybrids available in a huge variety of heights with a wide range of flower colors, from bright pink to white to two-toned yellow, orange, and more. Some have flowers that maintain the traditionally recognizable daisy shape and a large center cone, while others look like pom poms. Some have flat-topped flowers. Whatever your garden’s color scheme, there is likely an Echinacea that will fit.
The reason the botanical name, Echinacea, is so familiar to most people is, yes, the cold & flu aisle at the drug store. Roots of Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea angustifolia were traditionally used by Native Americans to heal a wide range of ailments. Today, you find extracts in cough drops, and capsules of ground up plant parts touting immune boosting benefits. Whether it works for you is up to you. Be careful if you partake, as some people are allergic to Echinacea.
Planting a Pollinator Garden: Featuring Echinacea
If you wanted to invite birds, butterflies, dragonflies, bees, and other pollinators to your garden and the only plant you planted was Echinacea, you’d still be miles ahead of other gardeners. In the 1990s everyone became really excited about butterflies, and why not, right? They’re gorgeous. As a whole, gardeners have clued into the fact that in addition to supporting butterflies, we can do a lot of good for our environment and our food supply by supporting all pollinators.