#TeachingTuesday: Coneflowers (Echinacea and Rudbeckia)

#TeachingTuesday: Coneflowers (Echinacea and Rudbeckia)

By Myatt Landscaping, Posted in
July 21, 2020

#TeachingTuesday: Coneflowers (Echinacea and Rudbeckia)

Echinacea and Rudbeckia are a couple of powerhouse perennial genuses! The most common species, Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower) and Rudbeckia fulgida (black-eyed susan), are very popular in perennial borders, wildflower meadows, English cottage style gardens (even though they are native to North America), and even contemporary style gardens. However, there are also many lesser known species that are equally as interesting and easy to grow. 

Purple and white dwarf hybrid echincea. Photo: Herbie Champion

Some nurseries that specialize in rare and native plants may have less common Echinacea species, but they can be difficult to find. Most echinaceas are magenta to purple, but there are also white, yellow, orange, and red varieties, as well as some hybrid double-flowered varieties that look like pompoms. The purple and yellow colors occur naturally in the wild, but all others have been created through crossing different species of echinacea. For example, crossing purple coneflower (E. purpurea) with yellow coneflower (E. paradoxa) has resulted in hybrid plants that have red and orange flowers, some with an ombre color pattern. At any garden center you will likely find many different hybrid echinacea.

Echinacea tennesseensis, an endangered species. Photo: Herbie Champion

Rudbeckia species are even more numerous, and have more variation in their characteristics. For example, great coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima) doesn’t look much like a black-eyed susan at all. It is very tall, has large, blue-gray, waxy leaves, and flowers with very tall greenish cones in the center. Rudbeckia laciniata, or cutleaf coneflower, has lacy leaves and smaller daisy-like flowers with green centers. Most rudbeckias are a shade of yellow or orange. 

Rudbeckia laciniata can grow over 6 feet tall. Photo: Pam Davis

Because both echinacea and rudbeckia have similar growth habits (at least the more common species) and similar environmental requirements, we will refer in this article to both of them, collectively, as coneflowers. Coneflowers are herbaceous perennials, and they bloom during the summer. Both echinacea and rudbeckia can be used as cut flowers. Pollinators love the blooms, and birds eat the seeds from the dry seedheads during the fall and winter.

Coneflowers are very easy to care for and maintain. They naturally grow in dry, open grasslands, so they are drought tolerant once established, and do not require fertilizer. They actually prefer poor soil to rich compost. They don’t have any major disease or pest issues, although sometimes a disease called aster yellows can be transmitted by mites, which causes the plants to grow green and deformed flowers. If this happens, the plants should be carefully removed from the garden, roots and all, placed in a trash bag, and disposed in the garbage (not the compost pile or city yard waste).

The foliage and dry seedheads can be left through the winter to provide food and shelter for wildlife, as well as to help protect the crown of the plant from frost. In the spring, when new foliage starts to appear, the old stems can be pruned.

ID Tips

  • Coneflowers, both echinacea and rudbeckia, have daisy-like flowers. Some are flat like daisies, and some have petals that bend backward away from the central “cone” of the flower where the seeds are produced. Depending on the species, some have smaller, rounded cones, and some have very large cones shaped like a beehive.
  • The central cones on echinacea are spiny, like a hedgehog or sea urchin, which is where they got their name (from Greek ekhinos).
  • The leaves grow in a basal rosette, and are often (but not always) covered in fine hairs which may be soft and downy or sandpapery to the touch.

Basal rosette of a Rudbeckia. Notice the fine white hairs on the leaf surface.