Plant Profile: Coneflowers 

Coneflowers bloom at Shaw Nature Reserve. Photo by Matilda Adams.

A staple of many wildflower gardens in Missouri , coneflowers are often chosen for their colorful blooms and the many pollinators they attract. These Missouri natives also have a long history including medicinal uses by indigenous people for medicinal purposes, including snakebite cures.  

The purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea. Echinacea comes from the Greek word echinos, meaning hedgehog or sea-urchin. Photo by Rebecca Pavelka.

Hedgehogs and old friends 
Two different plant genera are commonly called “coneflower,” due to the conical shape of their flower heads, Rudbeckia and Echinacea. Echinacea comes from the Greek word echinos, meaning hedgehog or sea-urchin, in reference to the spiny center cone found on most flowers in the genus. Carl Linneaus named Rudbeckia to honor fellow botanist Olof Rudbeck the Younger. 

Coneflower, Echinacea paradoxa, is named for its surprising yellow blooms. Photo by Tom Incrocci.

Colorful blooms 
Rudbeckia species have yellow flowers. Most Echinacea usually produce purple and pink blooms, with the exception of Echinacea paradoxa, named for its unexpected yellow blooms. 

Rudbeckia missouriensis is one of nine species of Rudbeckia native to Missouri. Photo by Tom Incrocci.

Missouri natives 

The Show Me State has three native species of Echinacea: the yellow coneflower, Echinacea paradoxa, the pale purple coneflower, Echinacea pallida, and the purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea. The state is also home to nine species of Rudbeckia. This includes the black-eyed Susans, or the Missouri coneflower, Rudbeckia missouriensis.

The pale purple coneflower, E. pallida, is known for many medicinal uses. Photo by Cassidy Moody.

Snakebites and toothaches 
According to the Native American ethnobotany database, E. pallida and E. purpurea were traditionally used as antivenom, antiviral or antibacterial, and perhaps anti-inflammatory. It was commonly used externally on snakebites or other inflamed wounds to reduce swelling. Echinacea roots were also chewed for conditions including toothache, sore throat, tonsillitis, stomach trouble, gonorrhea, colds, mumps, measles, and smallpox. 

Lewis and Clark learned about Echinacea during their expedition and sent a specimen of the plant to President Jefferson, with Lewis writing that “its roots highly prized by the natives as an efficatious remidy in cases of the bite of the rattle Snake or Mad Dog.”  

The purple coneflower is still used in modern medicine. Photo by Bethany Ottens.

Modern medicine 
Today, the most popular use of Echinacea, supported by clinical trials, is cold and flu treatment. Modern herbalists often use Echinacea for bug and spider bites, including brown recluse bites. Positive clinical trials focus on tinctures or freshly expressed juice products, as swallowing capsules of Echinacea root has proved to be ineffective.  

A bumblebee on a purple cone flower. Photo by Bailie Fischer.

Popular with pollinators  
Bees big and small love blooming Echinacea. Bumblebees, sweat bees, leafcutter bees, and long-horned bees are among frequent visitors. One Missouri bee, Andrena rudbeckiae, specializes in Rudbeckia species. 

Almost all butterflies in Missouri will visit coneflowers, making any native coneflower an excellent addition to a butterfly garden. 

Other coneflower pollinators include beetles, like the banded longhorn beetle, and the caterpillars of Synchlora moths, a genus of emerald moths named for the beautiful green wings of adults.  

Coneflowers bloom in the Kemper Center for Home Gardening. Photos by Sundos Schneider.

Growing in your garden 

Different species of coneflowers will have different growing preferences, but in general, the experts at the Garden’s Center for Home Gardening share the following tips: 

  • Coneflowers are best grown in evenly moist to dry, well-drained soils in full sun. 
  • These native plants are quite adaptable and will tolerate drought, heat, humidity, partial shade, and poor soil. 
  • Divide clumps when they become overcrowded, which is about every four years. 
  • Plants rebloom well without deadheading, but prompt removal of spent flowers encourages continued bloom. 

Catherine Martin 
Senior Public Information Officer 

Many thanks to the Garden’s experts for providing information:  

Wendy Applequist, Associate Scientist, William L. Brown Center 

Chris Hartley, Science Education Coordinator, Butterfly House 

Justine Kandra, Horticulturist, Kemper Center for Home Gardening 

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