Coneflowers, also known as echinacea, are one of America’s native wildflowers, beloved by butterflies, bees, and songbirds. Learn more about growing coneflower care—from planting to pests to deadheading.
About Perennial Coneflowers
Echinacea are tough perennials in the daisy family (Asteraceae) and hardy in Zones 3 to 9. They are native to the eastern and central United States, blooming in mid-summer and continue to flower sporadically until frost.
The genus is named after the Greek word for hedgehog, echinos, because of the cone-like center which attracts butterflies and bees. Leave the seed heads after bloom and you’ll also attract songbirds such as goldfinches!
Of course, this plant is good for us humans, too, with many medicinal properties; today, it’s especially popular as an herbal tea to strengthen the immune system.
Do Coneflowers Spread?
This is not an aggressive plant, but it will naturally self-seed and spread, which you can encourage if you wait to cut back until late winter (or prohibit self-seeding if you deadhead the flowers right after they fade). Hybrids will not self-sow; most are sterile (they do not produce viable seeds). Hybrids aren’t of much interest to birds, either.
The Purple Coneflower
The purple coneflower (E. purpurea) is the most common and readily available. The flowers measure 2 to 4 inches in diameter with a mounded, brown, central cone of disk flowers, surrounded by long light purple rays that droop down its center cone. But also up to nine naturally occurring echinacea can be found in purple shades or yellow (E. paradoxa). They have dark green lower leaves 4 to 8 inches long.
Coneflowers are striking when planted in masses, especially as a mix of various colors. They are trouble-free once established in a traditional garden or wildflower meadow. They are commonly seen in perennial flower gardens.
Coneflowers prefer full sun and well-draining soil; they are drought-tolerant. Loosen the soil to a depth of 12 to 15 inches and mix in compost or aged manure. (These plants will tolerate poor soil, but results may vary.)
When to Plant Coneflowers
If buying plants from a nursery (most common), plant coneflowers when small, with blooms on the way, in spring or early summer.
Seeds can be started indoors 8 to 10 weeks before the last spring frost or outdoors when the soil has warmed to at least 65°F/18°C. (Seed-sown plants are not likely to bloom for 2 to 3 years.)
How to Plant Coneflowers
Dig a hole about twice the pot’s diameter. Set the plant so that the root ball is level with the soil surface.
Fill in to the top of the root ball.
Space plants 1 to 3 feet apart, depending on size at maturity.
Spread thin layers of compost, then mulch, on the soil surface to help keep plants moist and prevent weeds.
Check out our video to learn more about growing coneflowers:
Coneflowers are drought tolerant, but new plants need water occasionally, and more often if the spring season is especially dry.
Native in ground coneflowers seldom need fertilizer.
To delay blooming for fall enjoyment (and compact growth), cut back stems 1 foot when plants come into bloom. For staggered bloom heights and times, cut only a few stems.
In late fall, lightly spread mulch in colder regions.
Cut the stems back to soil level when they wither or after frost.
Divide or transplant coneflowers in spring or fall.
Should you deadhead coneflowers? There are pros and cons. Deadheading right after a flower fades prolongs blooming—and prevents reseeding. However, if you can wait until late winter, your birds will enjoy those seedheads—especially goldfinch. Plus, coneflowers self-seed prolifically so where you had only one, you’ll will have multiple places in the garden with lovely blooms that attract butterflies and bees.
How to deadhead coneflowers? After the flowers fade, cut back stems to a leaf near a new flower bud or a set of leaves. Use sharp, sterilized shears as coneflowers are too thick to simply snap back the spent flower head with your fingers.
Growing Coneflowers in Pots
We tend to grow coneflowers in the ground as perennial plants, but you can certainly grow them in pots if the containers are deep enough for the plant’s taproot.
Use 2- or 3-gallon (or larger) pots, with drainage holes. Spread crushed gravel in the bottom of the pots for drainage.
Fill the pot halfway with potting mix. Tamp down. Plant the root ball an inch below the rim of the container, spreading out the roots. Add soil slowly until it is even with the top of the root ball, tamping down lightly. Water deeply.
Keep pots in partial shade for 2 to 3 days, then place in full morning sun and partial afternoon shade.
Always water deeply at soil level with the soil is dry to the touch. Water on leaves can cause fungal disease.
Fertilize every couple of weeks with a water-soluble 10-10-10 product.
Deadhead just below the base of the flower for continued bloom.
To overwinter, prune plants to soil level when plant growth slows in fall.
Move to a cool (40º to 50ºF) area, with low to moderate indirect light.
Check the soil every couple of weeks and water lightly when the top 3 inches are dry.
When new.growth appears in spring, move to a brighter, warmer (60º to 70ºF) area. Moving the plant helps to prepare it for living outdoors in the spring and summer.
Do not water leaves from above, as this can encourage fungal disease on leaves. Instead, water at soil level. Use an insecticidal soap or neem oil solution spray if you see any aphids or pests.
Every 3 to 4 years, in spring after new growth has started, divide and repot echinacea plants.
These are native, unless noted …
‘Robert Bloom’ (Echinacea purpurea): red-purple petals; prominent, dark orange centers
‘Finale White’ (E. purpurea): creamy-white petals; greenish-brown centers
Narrow-leaf coneflower (E. augustifolia): similar to E. purpurea
Pale purple coneflower (E. pallida); native to Ontario
Sanguine purple coneflower (E. sanguinea): red-purple petals with streaks (sanguinea, Latin for “blood” refers to streaks in petals; native to southern states
Smooth purple coneflower (E. laevigata): narrow, drooping, pale-pink petals; endangered
Tennessee coneflower (E. tennesseensis): upturned mauve petals; greenish-pink centers
Topeka purple coneflower (E. atrorubens): deep pink short petals; rare
Wavy leaf coneflower (E. simulata): yellow pollen distinguishes it from E. pallida (white pollen)
Yellow coneflower (E. paradoxa), aka Ozark coneflower: yellow petals
Cut flowers for arrangements when petals are expanding. Vase life is 5 to 7 days.
Leave some of the spent blooms so that birds can eat the seed through the fall and winter.
Harvest some flowers to dry for herbal teas.
Wit and Wisdom
Coneflowers’ genus name echinacea comes from the Latin name for hedgehog, echinus, referring to the often prickly lower stem of the plant, a feature which deters deer.
Plains Native Americans used purple coneflower (E. purpurea) as their primary medicine; they steeped roots as a remedy for colds, coughs, and infections.
Coneflowers are not too bothered by disease or pests but they do have some problems:
Missing or distorted petals? If your coneflowers have a raised cone but lack petals, you probably have Eriophyid mites which suck nutrients from the flowers. Cut back infected plants in the fall and destroy infected plant parts (do not put in compost).
Greening of petals? Aster Yellows is transmitted by leafhoppers feed on the plant. In severe cases, the entire flower head is green. The plant will wilt and die. Remove and destroy infected plants.
White dusting on plant? Powdery mildew is generally the result of overcrowding; the plants need more air circulation. Learn more about controlling powdery mildew.
Holes in leaves? Yep, it’s our friend the Japanese Beetle; these beetles don’t often attack coneflowers but if you have roses nearby, who knows? Learn more about controlling Japanese beetle.
Leaves eaten down the ground? Deer don’t find coneflowers palatable, however, rabbits will chew down the foliage. Hot pepper wax sprays can make leaves less appealing.