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The Magnificent Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a herbaceous perennial that grows in places with full sun or part shade. It is the host plant for two species of butterflies and a nectar source for other insects and the fruits are a food source for birds. Growing from 2 to 5 feet tall the multi-colored flowers bloom in the summer and the fruits mature in the fall. Numerous horticultural varieties of this plant are found in the horticultural trade. It is hardy in zones 3 to 8. This plant can be purchased in the McMullen House Bed & Breakfast Garden Shop.

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Taxonomy and History of Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Herbarium specimen of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).
Herbarium Specimen — Echinacea purpurea (L.) Moench collected in United States of America by The New York Botanical Garden (licensed under CC BY 4.0)

Taxonomy

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) was originally described by Carl Von Linnaeus, in 1753 in Species Plantarum as Rudbeckia purpurea. In 1794, it was renamed as Echinaea purpurea, by Conrad Moench, a German botanist. This plant is a member of the Aster Family (Asteraceae).

Meaning of the Scientific and Common Names

Scientific Name

The genus name, Echinacea, is named for the Greek for “hedgehog” of “sea-urchin,: in reference to the spiny seed heads of the genus (Wikipedia). The species name, purpurea, is Latin for purple and is in reference to the color of the flowers.

Common Name and Alternative Names

The common name references the flower color and the shape of the flower as a cone. Other common names include coneflower, eastern purple coneflower, and purple rudbeckia.

Physical Description

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) with Monarch butterfly.
Monarch Butterfly on Purple Coneflower — Robert Coxe, Image

Description

  • Plant Type: Herbaceous perennial
  • Height: 3 to 4 feet
  • Stem: Smooth or rough and sometimes tinged with red (Eaton 1918)
  • Leaves: The leaves are alternate, simple, entire or dentate/serrate and oval to lanceolate. They range from 1.5-6 inches long and 0.5-3 inches wide.
  • Flower color: purple, white, pink, yellow, brown, to red
  • Blooming period: Flowers from June to August
  • Fruiting type and period: This plant has achenes that mature in the fall.

Range and Habitat

Range map of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) in the United States and Canada.

This species ranges from the midwest, south-central, and eastern United States and the province of Ontario.

Habitat

Roadside in Europe with wildflowers.
Roadside verge full of wildflowers by Christine Johnstone, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Coneflower grows in places open places such as fields, meadows, gardens, and roadsides that have full sun to partial sun. It has also been described as being in woodlands and forest edges (Eaton 1918), glades in Florida (Johnson, et al 2013), as well as calciphilic areas (Wofford, et al 1979).

Hosted Insects

Silvery checkerspot butterfly on purple coneflower.
Purple Coneflower with Silvery Checkerspot — Cbaile19, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

This plant is a host to Silvery Checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis) and the Wavy-lined Emerald (Synchlora aerata).

Other Supported Wildlife

House sparrow on log.
House Sparrow — Mathias Appel, CC0 1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The flowers are used as a nectar source by other butterflies, bees, and insects and the fruits a food source for birds. The Diana Fritillary (Speyeria diana) was shown to especially use this plant for nectaring in Arkansas (Moran and Baldridge 2002).

Frequently Asked Questions

What other coneflowers (Echincea spp.) are similar to this species?

This species is similar to the smooth purple coneflower (Echinacea laevigata) that has glabrous leaves. The purple coneflower has pubescent to scabrous leaves. The rounded and cordate leaf base distinguishes this species from others (Weakley 2022). This plant also has fibrous roots.

Interesting Facts

The genus name, Echinacea, refers to the sea urchin like texture of the flower cone. The species name, purpurea, means purple. (Missouri Botanical Garden).

References

  • Eaton, Mary E. 1918. Colored Illustrations and and Popular Descriptions of Plants. Addisonia 3: 67-68.
  • Johnson, A.F., Loran C. Anderson, W. Wilson Baker, A.K. Gholson. 2013. Flora of Calcareous Upland Glades in Gadsden and Jackson Counties, Florida. Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas 1: 475-494.
  • Moran, Matthew D. and Charles D. Baldridge. 2002. Distribution of the Diana Fritillary (Speyeria diana) (Nymphalidae) in Arkansas, with notes on nectar plant and habitat preference. Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society 3: 162-165.
  • Weakley, A.S., and Southeastern Flora Team. 2022. Flora of the southeastern United States. University of North Carolina Herbarium, North Carolina Botanical Garden.
  • Wofford, B. Eugene, Thomas S. Patrick, Loy R. Phillippe, and David H. Webb. 1979. The Vascular Flora of Savage Gulf, Tennessee. Sida 8: 135-151.

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