A Splash of Natives in the Garden goes a Long Way…
It’s that time of year again – temperatures are dropping, leaves are beginning to turn colors, and perennials everywhere are starting to die-back, including our native Coneflowers. Now it’s time to decide: “Do I cut my coneflowers down now, or later?”
What’s a Coneflower?
Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) are native perennials that can be found in both wild and man-made landscapes throughout planting zones 3-9. These hardy plants are a colorful, low-maintenance addition to any sunny landscape as they can thrive in a wide range of soil types and are tolerant of dry conditions. Once established, purple coneflowers will reach 2′-5′ in height and produce long lasting purple, daisy-like flowers with brown centers. Presently there are 8-9 known species of coneflower.
Did you know? The genus name Echinacea came from the Greek word echino, meaning hedgehog!
Great for Wildlife!
With their height and colorful summer blooms, purple coneflowers are ideal for massed plantings in naturalized areas and perennial beds. These native perennials are an attractive source of nectar for many species of butterflies (like Monarchs!) and bees throughout the summer, while Goldfinches are often seen feeding on see heads left standing throughout the fall and winter.
Food for thought:
Purple coneflowers and other natives are great for attracting birds, butterflies, and bees to the garden – but that isn’t all they bring! Caterpillars, beetles, and other beneficial insects are typically attracted as well. Ultimately, this diversity is desirable as it promotes and supports healthy plants and wildlife, but it may not be ideal right next to the house or your vegetable garden. Think carefully, plan and plant accordingly!
Coneflowers in Fall
Like most perennials, purple coneflowers die back to their roots as temperatures drop in fall. There are pros and cons to leaving the shriveled stems topped by spikey brown seed heads standing throughout the fall and winter months.
During the winter months, many species of birds and mammals use vegetation left standing for shelter and food, and massed plantings of purple coneflowers are no exception. The Eastern Goldfinch in particular has been seen making a meal of coneflower see heads. From an aesthetic standpoint, leaving coneflowers standing throughout the winter also provides a bit of winter interest in the landscape.
The drawbacks of leaving purple coneflowers standing is really a matter of homeowner preference and perspective. When left standing through the fall, coneflowers are prone to self-seeding, resulting in thicker and/or larger stands of coneflowers the following year.
If you prefer to have a clean, manicured look to your landscape throughout the winter, plan to cut back purple coneflowers in fall. To do this, simply snip the dead stems off at the base, a little above the soil level. Otherwise, make a note to cut old stems back in early spring, before new growth begins to appear. Helpful tip: With coneflowers, the blossom often dies back before the leaves do. To promote long term, healthy growth, leave the leaves as long as possible! This allows the plant ton continue gathering sunlight and storing energy in it’s root system, leading to stronger, healthy growth the following year. Always clear away dead plant waste to reduce the risk of overwintering and spreading plant diseases to the new growth.
Overwintering: Many pests, pathogens, and plants go into a dormant state once cooler temperatures begin in fall. This allows them to survive over the course of the winter – hence the term ‘overwintering.’
Where can I find Coneflowers?
Thanks to the ‘Grow Native!’ campaigns gaining traction across the country, native perennials like the purple coneflower are readily available commercially. check with your local nursery or garden center for seedlings or reach out to one of the many native plant retailers online! Note: Your local University Extension office is a great resource for finding out what plants are truly native to your area!
To learn more about planting, dividing mature plants, and general information on Purple Coneflowers, we recommend visiting these sites: