Native Coneflowers: A Beginner’s Guide

Highlights

Coneflowers—also known by their Latin name Echinacea—are cheerful, bright perennial flowers that bloom for a month or more in the summer. All nine species are native to North America. Coneflowers are known for their distinctive drooping petals and large, cone-shaped seed heads. Their blooms become seeds in the fall, turning into natural bird feeders. Coneflowers love full sun, are very easy to grow, and are drought tolerant. An absolute must for any sunny garden.

All nine native coneflower species are pollinator favorites

Dig Deeper

Explore the history, types, and where to plant native coneflowers

Table of Contents

Coneflowers are a perfect native plant to grow because they are so easy to grow and they look stunning quickly. Their blooms are not shy: the neon-pink or bright-yellow petals look electrified in the summer. Coneflowers are perennials—plant once and they come back year after year. Let’s spend some time getting to know more about coneflowers, including how to plant them and what kinds to add to your garden.

Why is it important to plant native plants like coneflowers?

Planting native plants makes our yards and spaces gorgeous while helping the birds, butterflies, and animals (and helping save us time!) Here are three reasons why planting native is worth it:

  1. Without native plants, iconic animals like Monarch butterflies and songbirds won’t have the food or homes needed to survive
  2. Native plants save time and money: after the first year of getting established, native plants are happy with rain
  3. Native plants are gorgeous! Coneflowers are a perfect example of how beautiful and resilient native plants are—they are always the best choice for our gardens.

About their Latin name Echinacea (and a warning about seed tops!)

Coneflower and Echinacea are two different names for the same plant. Coneflower is its common name, or a plant name given generations before. However, all coneflowers also have a Latin name, or a singular two-part name to help place them within the plant kingdom. All coneflowers’ Latin names begin with Echinacea, which is also sometimes used as this plant’s name (especially when it comes to vitamins…more on that, later.)

You can see coneflowers turn into seed hedgehogs in the fall

Every single one of the nine species of Echinacea is native to North America. If you see a plant that has Echinacea in its Latin name—plant away! 

The Latin genus name Echinacea comes from the Greek word echinos, which translates to hedgehog or sea-urchin.

You’ll know why it’s named for its spines when touching a seed pod—ouch! Don’t forget to wear gardening gloves when handling the surprisingly spikey coneflower tops.

Coneflowers are related to daisies

If they remind you of daisies, that’s because coneflowers are in the daisy family (Coneflowers are members of the Asteraceae or Compositae family—which means they’re in the daisy family.) However, the classic white-with-yellow-center shasta daisy is native to Europe and Asia.

When do coneflowers bloom?

Coneflowers have a very long bloom time: flowers will be out from mid-summer to early fall. Their bright petals are out for 4-6 weeks. Plant coneflowers in your garden for memorable, bright blooms through the end of summer and early fall. They are the perfect plant for highly visible, sunny spaces.

What do coneflowers look like in the fall and winter?

Leave your coneflowers in the garden through the fall and winter and let them become nature’s bird feeders. Leaving our gardens alone throughout the fall and winter helps native flowers turn into seed buffets for birds.

Small birds like bright yellow finches love to sit on top of the seed heads and enjoy a feast. In the late winter and early spring, coneflowers are a welcome food source.

Now that we’ve covered the name and benefits, let’s meet the different species.

Native coneflowers

There are nine species of coneflowers native to North America; four species are easily found in either seed or plant form. Look for these in your local plant nurseries or garden shares.

1.

Purple Coneflower

Purple Coneflower is native to the Eastern United States and is known for its large electric-pink petals. (It’s also sometimes called ‘Eastern Purple Coneflower.’) Plant as many as you can in your garden, for pollinators and birds alike. They can get tall: up to 4-5 feet! Surround them with shorter plants.

2.

Pale Purple Coneflower

Pale Purple Coneflower is native to the great plains. Its long, elegant petals look like a ballerina’s tutu, especially when caught in the breeze. They get tall—4-6 feet! Surround them with medium and shorter native flowers.

3.

Yellow or Ozark Coneflower

Yellow Coneflower (sometimes called Ozark Coneflower) is straight-forwardly named; its shape and drought tolerance are similar to that of its purple and pink cousins. Native to just four states: Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri.

Not in the 'Echinacea' genus, but...

Prairie Coneflower

Prairie Coneflower is not in the Echinacea plant genus, but since its common name often includes ‘coneflower,’ we’ll include it here. It is also sometimes referred to as Mexican Hat Coneflower. These tall, sun-loving perennials look gorgeous in the heat of the summer.

Looking for the other native coneflowers? Sadly, the other species are rare—some are even endangered. Here’s the story, which ties back to echinacea in grocery stores worldwide.

Endangered native coneflowers

We’ve all heard of echinacea before, especially when we have a cold and are perusing the vitamin or tea aisle. As we mentioned earlier, everything that says ‘echinacea’ comes from a coneflower plant. Coneflowers have been used for centuries—first by Native Americans—for their medicinal benefits.

Sadly, in recent generations, these native plants have been pulled up in enormous numbers. According to plant historian Marjorie Harris, “In 1990 alone, 70,000 pounds of dried [coneflower] root were collected, much of which was shipped abroad. The same year, the U.S. government stopped issuing licenses for this purpose in fear that the herb might be wiped out.”

Combine this with the rise of invasive plants like kudzu overtaking coneflower habitat, and you’ll see why some native coneflower species are in trouble.

Below are some endangered, threatened, or imperiled native coneflower species. (The different names relate to different levels of scarcity, but the message remains the same: these plants need help to survive.) If you see these plants in the wild, admire but do not touch. If you spot them in a local nursery or plant sale, take good care of them and give away as many seeds as you can.

4.

Smooth Coneflower

Smooth Coneflower is a plant to protect: it is endangered in several states (Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia.) Thankfully, it was moved from ‘endangered’ to ‘threatened’ at the federal level in 2022, but it still needs our help to thrive. Its dramatic drooping petals frame its cone. Look out for these at plant sales at your local botanic gardens.
Photo by Manuel M. V.
5.

Narrow-leaf Coneflower

Narrow-leaf Coneflower is a native that has been pulled up and sold commercially for medicinal reasons for over one hundred years. It is classified in some states as vulnerable, imperiled, or critically imperiled. Leave it undisturbed in the wild. We’ve found a few places to buy Narrow-Leaf Coneflower seeds to help bring this native species back:

Let’s wrap up the list of native coneflowers. These final four species have smaller ranges within the U.S. (their names give clues to their small ranges.)

6.  Topeka Purple Coneflower (Echinacea atrorubens)
7.  Sanguine Purple Coneflower (Echinacea sanguine)
8.  Wavyleaf Purple Coneflower (Echinacea simulata)
9.  Tennessee Purple Coneflower (Echinacea tennesseensis)

Congrats! You’ve met all the native coneflowers!

Now I bet you’re thinking… “Hmm. I’ve seen other coneflowers before in reds, whites, oranges. What are those?”

Those are cultivar coneflowers.

Coneflower Cultivars

A cultivar is a plant that has been created or curated by humans to look or behave a certain way—here is a quick cultivar overview. There are so many coneflower cultivars that have been developed for use in gardens. (You know it’s a cultivar by a cheeky marketing name in ‘single quotes’.) Popular coneflower cultivars include:

The Latin name Echinacea purpurea shows that all these cultivars are made from the native Purple Coneflower, which provides the original DNA.

Native vs. Cultivar Coneflowers

Let’s compare a native Purple Coneflower to its cultivar cousin. When you see them side by side, you have to wonder—how can pollinators understand this is the same plant?

Native Purple Coneflower
Purple Coneflower cultivar 'Giddy Pink' barely resembles the native species

Are coneflower cultivars bad?

The conversation about planting native cultivars vs. true native species is heated in botany and horticulture. Some believe that planting true native species found naturally within your home area is the only way. Other gardeners—even some Master Gardeners at Mt. Cuba Center, the largest native garden in the U.S.—embrace cultivars in their landscapes.

If you’re looking for The Plant Native’s opinion:

Plant true native plants whenever possible. Do this so that the genes will cross-pollinate with other native species and continue to evolve into resilient, beautiful plants. But let’s not make gardening feel like a botany exam. If you fall in love with a cultivar, it’s always better than a non-native plant.

Native vs. Cultivar

Plant true native plants whenever possible. Cultivars (short for CULTivated VARieties) are selected and made by humans and do not offer the same benefits to bugs, birds, and animals that native plants do. 

Where to plant coneflowers

Coneflowers like full sun and most varieties get tall (up to 4-5 feet) Plant them in sunny areas, with shorter native plants in front (Bee Balm, Nodding Onion, and Butterfly Weed—a type of milkweed—are great pairings).

How to grow coneflowers

Coneflowers are very easy to grow. They are

  • Drought resistant: don’t worry about them surviving dry summers; they can handle droughts
  • Low maintenance: no fertilizer or special needs are required for coneflowers to thrive
  • Longtime bloomers: their bright blooms are open 4-8 weeks from the summer to early fall
  • Perennials: they will come back year after year. Once you plant them and they are happily established, you can enjoy them in your yard for years to come.
More good news:

Mountain Laurel is deer-proof

Deer do NOT eat Mountain Laurel. If you’re worried about deer nibbling your garden, planting Mountain Laurel is good native gardening choice.

Pale Purple Coneflowers offer striking, delicate beauty—especially when planted in groups.

Grow coneflowers by seed

It’s easy to plant coneflowers by seed if you are patient: plants started from seed may not flower until the second year.

For less than $5, you can plant a garden full of coneflowers by seed. Seeds are easily found in any local nursery and even at big box stores.

For $0, you can also plant a garden full of coneflowers, if a neighbor gives you a seed head. Make sure you do this in the fall—before the birds eat it all! (Coneflower seed heads are very spikey—remember to wear gloves when handling the seed tops.)

To collect the coneflower seed, put the seed head between two plastic cups and shake vigorously. The seeds will separate from the seedhead easily. 

To plant by seed in the late fall, scatter seeds and loosely throw mulch or dirt over the seeds. Seedlings will emerge in the spring.

Yes—it’s that easy! Native plants can plant themselves, so mimicking the way coneflower seeds naturally drop to the ground and grow is all it takes.

Direct sow coneflower seeds in early spring when the soil is warm, 65°F (18°C).

Take the seeds individually and plant them into holes 1/8″ deep. Water daily for the first two months to ensure they get enough moisture to grow. Watch the seedlings emerge in the spring, grow greenery that summer, and bloom the summer after.

native-plant-coneflower-emerging-from-the-ground
A native coneflower plant emerging from the ground in the spring

Grow coneflowers from plants

Coneflower plants will normally flower the first year they are planted and will return in the following years with taller plants and bigger blooms.

There are four reliable ways to find coneflower plants for your yard:

Native Coneflowers: A Beginner’s Guide

Where can I find seeds and plants?

Finding native plants can be challenging (we partly blame Marie Antoinette.) To make it easier, we’ve assembled four sourcing ideas.

Native Plant Nurseries

Our list of native nurseries makes finding one a breeze

Online Communities

Local Facebook groups are a great plant source

Coneflowers + Blazing Star + Butterfly Weed = butterfly heaven

What to plant with coneflowers

Coneflowers look great alongside other plants that flower at different times, so pollinators always have something to eat.

Native Plants for the spring

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Bee Balm
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Creeping Phlox
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False Blue Indigo
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Golden Alexander

other native plants for the summer

Native plants for the fall

Coneflowers are a beautiful and drought-resistant addition to any Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Northeast, or Southern garden. With their range of colors and easy maintenance, they thrive in a variety of environments. For $5 or less, you can plant a coneflower garden in no time. Easy-to-find coneflowers include Purple Coneflower, Pale Purple Coneflower, and Yellow Coneflower. Whether you are an experienced gardener or just starting out, add coneflowers to your landscape and watch wildlife chow down year-round. Happy planting!

Next steps and resources:

There are lots of well-known plants that have native options available. Explore our beginner guides to native favorites:

UPDATED —
07/19/2024