The coneflower (photo: Evan Young)

The coneflower

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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It seems as though I learn something new every day. A few years ago I was gifted with some cut-leaved (yellow) coneflower seed from plants growing in a West Prince ditch. This beautiful and quite rare rudbeckia is a close relation to the very common black-eyed Susan, a non-native plant that thrives in our climate and soil conditions.

Towering over most other wildflowers, coneflowers grow up to seven feet tall in a single season once they are established. The brilliant yellow flower petals surround a green head, which is why they are also known as green-headed coneflower. The shapes and sizes of the green heads are different from plant to plant, making these attractive plants even more interesting.

Cut-leaf coneflowers are fantastic as a backdrop planted on the northern edge of a flower bed, and then fronted by shorter and shorter plants. If you are thinking of creating a pollinator garden to help our dwindling populations of bees, wasps, midges, butterflies and moths, this is an excellent choice. Many species of pollinators, including bats and both native and non-native bees, are in serious decline. Dedicating part of your lawn—a notoriously poor habitat for wildlife—to provide food and habitat for pollinators will bring beauty to your yard and benefit a wide variety of insects.

Though rare in the province, coneflowers are very easy to grow. Just plant the seed in the spring in a garden bed, and by the end of the second growing season you’ll have stocky plants to set out that will continue to get larger each year. As long as they have lots of sun, organic matter in the soil, and adequate water, they’ll be fine.  The plants can be grown about two feet apart and if planted in large blocks, they’ll shade out the weeds and require almost no maintenance. They do love having adequate moisture, so water them well when planting and then heavily mulch the individual plants. Combined with high levels of soil organic matter, this will help maintain a good water level and they shouldn’t require further irrigation.

When I began growing coneflowers, I thought it would be great to have another beautiful native perennial flower that could be used for landscaping and to provide food and habitat for a variety of pollinators. And they certainly serve those purposes.

On a sunny day, you’ll find them full of bumblebees and other native and non-native pollinators, including butterflies. In the evening, they come alive with a wide variety of moths looking for nectar. The night-flying moths are known to be drawn to light-coloured flowers, and it appears that the bright yellow coneflower petals are also highly attractive.

Another unplanned-for benefit from growing cut-leaved coneflowers is that they provide food for birds, especially American goldfinches. One year I was out collecting seed in late September and heard dozens of goldfinches in the treeline at the back of the arboretum. I was quite surprised when about 30 of these lovely birds swooped down onto the coneflowers to eat seeds. Then they retreated to the treeline, only to repeatedly fly down to eat more seeds. It is something that I now look forward to every fall, offering a great opportunity to see these birds in a flock. Black-capped chickadees and other birds also feed on the seeds.

I think of cut-leaved coneflower as one of the “Big Three” of pollinator plants, which also includes swamp milkweed and Joe Pye weed. These are all plants that should find their way into any Island garden planting.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI
Gary Schneider

Gary began writing for The Buzz in the May 2018 issue. He co-chairs ECO-PEI and started the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in 1991. The project demonstrates ecologically-sound forest management, with a focus on environmental education, conservation of rare plants, and the restoration of PEI’s native forest. He is an avid birder and lives in Tea Hill.