Coneflowers are the poster plant of native-plant gardening. These cheerful prairie natives are colorful and adaptable: they were the jewels of the prairie, and they sparkle in modern flower beds too, sharing space gracefully with roses, daylilies, iris — natives and non-natives of all kinds.
The prickly-headed coneflowers belong to the genus Echinacea, in the same family as black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia). They are tough plants with coarse foliage, but their abundant bloom makes up for the rough edges. Their colorful and sturdy flowers can be relied upon from midsummer through early fall.
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), with its glowing prickly orange dome and luminous purple petals, is the best-known of the native coneflowers. ‘Magnus’, which has flower stalks up to four feet tall, was named plant of the year by the Perennial Plant Association in 1998, and since then the selection of coneflowers has exploded: modern hybridizers have introduced a startling palette of pale lemon yellow, creamy white, soft pink, and rich magenta blooms. Fruity orange flowers, mop-topped doubles, and even fiery red coneflowers have come on the market and are all the rage.
Coneflowers are native to the eastern and central U. S., and they thrive in Zones 5-8. Some, including ‘Magnus’, are hardy to Zone 3, where winter temperatures may plummet to -30 degrees. Grow them in a sunny spot with well-drained soil. They should be watered regularly their first season in the garden, but well-established coneflowers tolerate heat and drought. Don’t pamper them: they are not bothered by pests and do not need fertilizer.
The prairies were once alive not just with grasses but with coneflowers and blazing stars, a combination that inspired the Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf’s bold, naturalistic plantings. His plant selection for the Lurie Garden in Chicago relies on a mix of native- and non-natives for a long season of color. Coneflowers are planted with native Blue Star (Amsonia), asters, sunny yellow Coreopsis, and handsome false indigo (Baptisia). Catmint, hardy geraniums, Japanese anemones, deep blue Salvias, and lots of ornamental grasses are woven into the dense tapestry of color and texture.
Coneflowers bloom for about two months, attracting birds and butterflies to the garden. After the flowers fade, the domed seedheads stand tall through the winter. Chickadees and goldfinches perch lightly on top to eat the seeds, and snow pulls a warm little cap on each seadhead. In early spring, cut the old flowerstalks back, and get ready for a fresh season of colorful, long-lasting, perennial blooms.