Sunday, July 7, 2019

Plant Story--Coneflowers, Echinacea and Ratibida, American Wildflowers

Two often-cultivated American wildflowers go by the common name coneflower, plants in the genus Echinacea and those in the genus Ratibida. 
coneflower, Echinacea
coneflower, Echinacea
coneflower, Ratibida
coneflower, Ratibida
Both are members of the sunflower family, Asteraceae and native to meadows and plains across the eastern and central North America. They are pretty easy to tell apart--Echinacea has bigger broader flowers, while Ratibida really has a "cone."

(Technical note: Actually, each has tiny flowers massed together in a tight cluster, called the flower head or inflorescence. The central disc florets--floret means little flower and is used to speak of the flowers of a sunflower family inflorescence--generally have no petals, while the ray florets around the outside each just have one petal many times the size of the rest of the floret. Collectively the ray florets make the "flower" we are attracted to. The sunflower family is large and successful because it has evolved all manner of variations on the disc-and-ray floret inflorescence theme. )

My two pictures make it look like color could tell the two kinds of coneflower apart but both genera have diverse species and cultivated varieties, in different colors. North America has nine species of Echinacea found in all states east of the Rockies and the eastern Canadian provinces. Their flowers range from purple and red to yellow. There are four species of Ratibida, native to all states except Nevada, Oregon, and Washington and all the southern Canadian provinces. Ratibida flowers range from brown and red to yellow. 
purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea
purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea
The most popular Echinacea species for gardens, E. purpurea, has red to purple flowers. The most popular Ratibida species, R. columnifera, has red, brown and yellow petals.  In the horticultural literature R. columnifera is usually called Mexican hat flower which helps separate it from Echinacea coneflowers. However, Mexican hat flower seems to be a name for plants of R. columnifera with multicolored petals (see examples). The species also has solid yellow petals, as in my photos, which are not usually called Mexican hat flowers. The U.S.D.A. plants website uses the common name upright prairie coneflower. A Google search for "coneflower" brought up primarily Echinacea, for prairie coneflower Ratibida

Both are attractive, hardy perennial garden plants, visited by bees and butterflies.

echinacea and honey bee
purple coneflower with honeybee
I try to use common names in this blog, but these are too similar. I'll make common names out of their scientific names, saying echinacea and ratibida. (Scientific names are treated as if they are foreign words (Latin) and therefore italicized. They are also always two words, genus and specific epithet, with the genus capitalized. Common names in modern English are lower case. See blog post: link)

Gardeners discovered echinacea early in the settlement of North America. It appears in European plant books from as early as 1690. That was probably Echinacea purpurea, collected in Virginia.

Echinacea was used as a medicine for centuries by native Americans. Plains ethnobotanists concluded that echinacea (E. angustifolia, narrow leaf echinacea, but also called purple coneflower) was the plant most widely used as medicinal across the tribes of the plains and prairies. It was used as a painkiller and for complaints from toothache to sore throat to snake bite. It was only brought to the attention of settlers about 1880 by H.F. C. Meyer, a lay physician who apparently learned the virtues of echinacea from the Omaha or Pawnee in Nebraska and created a patent medicine with it.

Modern tests have shown echinacea, particularly Echinacea purpurea and E. angustifolia, to be effective enhancing the immune response. German Commission E (which tests traditional medicinal herbs for efficacy) approved echinacea (various species in various preparations) for treating colds, as supportive therapy for influenza-like ailments and for treatment of respiratory and urinary infections.

Today it is one of the most widely accepted herbal medicines, though WebMD (link) and the Mayo Clinic (link) are faint in their praise. Apparently the impact of echinacea on colds or flu is small, although all sources point out that the remedies can be any of several species and use roots, leaves or flowers, muddling comparison.

purple coneflower, Echinacea

The name Echinacea is based on the Greek word echinos, "hedgehog" referring to the round spiny cluster of disc florets.

For gardeners, echinacea comes in a variety of colors and as doubles (for example: High Country GardensGoodHousekeeping). Bees and butterflies love them. The seeds are readily eaten by birds, so don't dead-head the plants but leave the seeds to mature and feed the birds.

Echinaceas are also called black samson, sometimes with a p, sampson. I think this name chiefly applies to the midwestern Echinacea angustifolia but you can find it referring to E. purpurea which is native to the eastern U.S.

Native American uses of echinacea include using it as protection from heat: for example the Sioux put the juice on their hands to prevent burns when handling very hot meat and the Pawnee used echinaceas in the steam bath to "make the great heat endurable."

Echinaceas are big, dramatic plants with a strong medicinal history.

The ratibidas, on the other hand, were minor medicinals. The Lakota made a tea for stomach ache from Ratibida columnifera plant tops, and another from the flowers for headaches. The Cheyennes boiled the leaves into a topical medicine to treat snakebite and poison ivy. 

prairie cone flower
Mexican hat, prairie coneflower, Ratibida columnifera
Native over a wide area, ratibidas are hardy and quite drought-tolerant. They are not as well-known as echinaceas but across the southern Great Plains they are quite abundant and can put on a spectacular bloom: see the photos in this Texas article link. They have spread across my garden. Here is a plant in my little patch of restored grassland.

prairie coneflowers, Ratibida columnifera, in backyard grassland
prairie coneflowers, Ratibida columnifera, in backyard grassland
Ratibida in flower is attractive to bees and butterflies. The seeds are good fall and winter food for grassland birds. 

The Dakota thought ratibidas very fragrant and enjoyed a tea made from their leaves.

Ratibidas are cheerful hardy native wildflowers.

I also have big stands of echinaceas.  Very handsome plants.


I like both of them better since I realized that they are both called coneflowers. Before I'd look at one and think, confused, "but that's not a coneflower," having just seen the other. 

Be careful shopping for coneflowers that you get the one you wanted. Or, enjoy them both.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Blumenthal, M., A. Goldberg and J. Brinckmann. 2000. Herbal Medicine. Expanded Commission E Monographs. American Botanical Council, Austin, TX.
Hobbs, C. 199. Echinacea a literature review: botany, history, chemistry, pharmacology and clinical uses. HerbalGram. 30:33-48  online link
Kindscher, K. 1992. Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie. University of Kansas Press, Lawrence, KS.
and the links in the text.
Moerman, D. E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, Portland, OR. Online link

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

1 comment:

  1. Fun and informative article, ty. My favorite ( probably because of the name) is Echinacea paradoxa, the paradox being that it is yellow instead of the usual purple!
    It is grown in the New York Botanical Garden Native Plant Garden.