Purple coneflower

Purple coneflowers look like one big feast for the eyes and butterflies, but each bloom is actually made up of many individual flowers, as each petal and each section of the center is part of a compound flower cluster.

Did you know that when you look at a purple coneflower, a.k.a. echinacea purpurea, and its cousins, you’re not looking at one pretty flower but a cluster of hundreds? Coneflowers, like black-eyed Susans, sunflowers and other “daisy” flowers are members of the composites family — one of the largest plant families, and one of the most diverse.

The similarities between black-eyed Susans and coneflowers are pretty obvious, but did you know that they are also closely related to lettuce? Thistles? Artichokes? Ragweed and safflower? Plants are organized by the structure of their flowers, and all of these actually have similar flowers, if you look at them carefully. When many people think of a typical daisy flower, they think of petals around a center. However, daisies are composites, and those petals are actually individual flowers themselves.

So what is the center, or cone? That, too, is a cluster of tiny flowers. The petals are sterile, and are there to lure insects toward the many fertile flowers in the central disk or cone. So, these flower clusters are great for your garden, since they attract even more beneficial insects and butterflies!

Purple coneflowers are brightening up our gardens now, with their cheerful flowers that come in many different colors. Easy to grow, they get anywhere from 1 to 3 feet tall, but half of that height is the sturdy flower stalks that come up in late summer. The rest of the time, the group of leaves is shorter. There is a coneflower that is the right size for your garden or pot.

Coneflower care is easy — give them full sun (6 or more hours a day) and average soil (too much fertilizer or organic matter will make them get leggy and floppy). Our sandy soil here is fine. Like most plants, all they need is some compost spread out over the roots, an inch or so thick, every spring.

Flowering begins in mid-summer and continues for about a month, and the flowers are excellent as cut or dried flowers. They come in lots of different colors, from white, to yellow, orange, pink, magenta and purple — there’s one for you in there!

If you want to attract butterflies, make sure you get what is known as “the straight species,” not one of the cultivated varieties. But no matter what, you won’t regret adding these to your garden.