Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Plant of the Month (May) : Western Serviceberry / Juneberry – Amelanchier alnifolia


Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): blooming in May

By May, many shrubs are starting to bloom in Mother Nature’s Montrose Garden.  The flowers are attracting a number of native bees as well as the European Honeybees raised by our neighbor.  One of our favorite native shrubs is the Western serviceberry, Amelanchier alnifolia. The scientific name is pronounced: am-el-AN-kee-er  all-nih-FOE-lee-uh.

There are eighteen species of Amelachier worldwide.  Of these, fourteen are native to North America, with individual species tending to occur in either the Eastern or Western parts of the U.S. Amelanchier alnifolia is native from Alaska and Western Canada south to California, Arizona and New Mexico. In much of its range it grows in open coniferous and mixed evergreen forests, in areas with at least 14 inches annual precipitation. [1]  

In Colorado, Western Serviceberry is native to nearly all of the western and central counties, growing at elevations from 4500 to 11,000 ft. It is a common constituent of Aspen and Pinyon-Juniper communities, often growing on dry hillsides or in canyons, but sometimes in the dappled shade of trees. You have likely seen it in the wild, perhaps not recognizing it when it’s not in bloom (below).

Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia):Western CO

Amelanchier alnifolia is known by several common names, including Saskatoon serviceberry, Pacific Serviceberry, Juneberry, Shadbush, Alder-leaved Serviceberry and Shadblow. The names Serviceberry and Juneberry reflect the timing of the flowering, often in June, at a time when the ground was soft enough to allow burial services. The name Shadblow appears to reference flowering at the time of the spring Shad fish run. [2]

Western serviceberry is a large woody shrub in the Rose family (Rosaceae).  It can reach a height of twenty – even thirty - feet (6+ meters), but is more often in the 6-12 ft. range. A mature plant can have a spread of 6-10 ft. (2-3 meters).  It is a fairly slow-growing shrub that often is long-lived, both in the wilds and in gardens. That makes is a good choice for the home garden – as long as you are patient!

Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): mature shape

Amelanchier alnifolia most commonly grows as an upright shrub, although it becomes more tree-like in favorable conditions. It becomes wider and denser with the years, adding new stems at its base. Some plants even sucker.  Its mature shape is rounded and quite attractive (above). The bark is smooth and gray or reddish-brown (young twigs).

Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia):foliage

Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): fall color

The leaves are alternate, round or oval, with partially serrate edges and prominent veins (above). Leaves are a dull green during spring and summer, turning to red, orange or yellow with cold fall weather. Leaves are deciduous in winter. Budbreak occurs in late April or early May, at least in our garden at 6000 ft. elevation.

Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): cluster of flowers

The flowers of all species of Amelanchier are pretty, one reason these are favored garden shrubs in Europe and North America.  As seen above, the flowers of Western Serviceberry are white and grow in compact clusters.  The flowers are sweetly scented and attract a range of insect pollinators, including butterflies.  The flowers appear anytime from May to June and flowering may last up to a month.

Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): flowers (close-up)

The flowers have five, strap-like petals and both male and female parts (a ‘perfect’ flower).  In the photo above you can see the male anthers (brown colored) and the female stigmas (look closely – they are yellow).  In a good year, a mature plant many be covered in thousands of flowers.

Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): developing fruit

Pollinated flowers develop into edible fruits. As seen above, the fruits begin green and mature through pink stages to a ripe dark purple.  The mature fruits look somewhat like blueberries, and are as edible (below).  Fruits are small (1/4 to 1/2 inch) and ripen from early to midsummer. They taste most like blueberries, perhaps with a hint of apple.  Fruits can be eaten raw – but not to overdo, as the seeds and foliage contain cyanide-like toxins.  These toxins are destroyed by heating and/or drying.

Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): mature fruits

Serviceberries are widely used for pies, jellies, jams, sauces and baked goods.  They can be dried and used like raisins or made into fruit leather; they also freeze well. In fact, they can be used – fresh or dried – in any recipe that calls for blueberries. We like making a flavored syrup which can be used on pancakes, desserts or to flavor sparkling water.  The fruits can also be used to make wines and cordials.  Traditionally, various parts of the plant were used in herbal medicine.  The hard wood was also used for tool handles and the young stems for basket rims and handles.

Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): growing in shade
of Gambel Oak.

Western Serviceberry is fairly easy to grow in USDA Zones 4-9 – if you have the right conditions.  A well-drained soil is a must: no heavy clays, but any other soil texture is possible. It prefers a soil pH between 5.0 and 7.0, but does fine in Mother Nature’s Montrose Garden with a pH close to 8.0.  It can be grown in full sun to part-shade (see above).

Western Serviceberry is a plant of the West, having adaptations that allow it to survive our variable (and unpredictable) precipitation. Most plants have a combination of vertical taproots and lateral roots, allowing them to take advantage of available precipitation and survive dry conditions.  That being said, Amelanchier alnifolia needs occasional deep irrigation during hot, dry conditions.  Established shrubs should be fine with 1-2 good waterings a month, even in dry, windy Western Colorado.   But it takes 2-4 years for an individual to become fully established.

Western Serviceberry benefits from an organic mulch. We use a 2-3 inch layer of leaf/clippings mulch, applied in late fall and again in spring.  Plants are usually fairly disease-free, particularly in dry climates and in gardens with good air circulation. But leaves can develop rust (plant away from junipers and other plants susceptible to rusts). 

Like most species in the Rose family, Western Serviceberry can develop fire-blight. Look for ends of twigs and branches becoming brown/black, maybe curling over a bit, or cankers seeping a cloudy liquid during the damp spring. Prune out affected branches well-below the disease and be sure to clean your pruners to avoid spreading the disease to other plants.

Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): 5-year olf plant

Western Serviceberry makes an easy-care, large shrub in the garden. We’ve included several in our hedgerow, along with other native shrubs. A dense planting makes a good windbreak in windy areas.  Serviceberry looks good most of the year – even when dormant. And it needs little or no pruning to keep it looking tidy.  However, it can be pruned up as a small tree if desired.

Amelanchier alnifolia is a good habitat plant, providing nectar and pollen for native pollinators. Its size and density provide cover for birds and smaller animals.  Fruit-eating birds such as robins, woodpeckers, chickadees, thrushes, towhees, bluebirds, waxwings, orioles, tanagers, grosbeaks, goldfinches and others will happily compete for any leftover fruits. In fact, you may need to cover your shrub to protect some for the family!

If you like a natural, Western look for your garden, Western serviceberry is a good choice. It makes a nice background for some of our smaller silvery shrubs like the Artemisias and Saltbushes. It also highlights any summer and fall-blooming perennials and ornamental grasses.   Its neutral green color is a good foil for almost any light or bright color.

In closing, we very much like Western serviceberry as a garden shrub. It has much to recommend it over non-native large shrubs and we’re surprised it isn’t used more often in our area. Maybe you can be a gardener who changes this trend!

Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia): good choice for garden


For a gardening information sheet see: Gardening sheet amelanchier alnifolia (

For more pictures of this plant see:

For plant information sheets on other native plants see:


1.       Jepson Manual On-line:,5252,5254

2.       Native Plants 101: The Shadbush Story – Plant Talk (





We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to:

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Gardening Tip: Spot Watering with Home-made Drip-irrrigation Buckets (‘Homer Buckets’)


Simple, home-made drip-irrigation buckets simplify spot-watering.

We’re heading into a second year of drought in Western Colorado. Droughts can be a challenge when getting new garden plants established. Sometimes we need to supply a little extra water to an individual plant. And that’s where home-made drip-irrigation buckets (we call them ‘Homer Buckets’) come in handy.

Five-gallon bucket with hole

A ‘Homer Bucket’ is simply a 5-gallon plastic utility bucket with a single, small diameter hole drilled near the bottom (see above).  We use a drill with a 3/16 inch drill bit to create the hole – located 1 inch from the bottom of the bucket. You'll need to test a bucket to see if this diameter allows water to seep optimally into your soil. You may need a smaller diameter hole (slow-draining soils), or larger for fast draining soils. The goal is to prevent water from running off, rather than soaking into the soil. We drill the hole in the same position on each bucket, making it easy to position buckets for watering.

To water, simply place the ‘Homer Bucket’ 8-10 inches from the plant, fill the bucket with water, and let the water drain out through the hole (below).  That’s it!  

Watering buckets allow water to seep in, not run off.

There are several advantages to spot watering with ‘Homer Buckets’. First, they allow you to direct the water to precisely where it’s needed. Second, the small hole allows water to drain slowly, so water soaks into the ground, rather than running off.  Third, you are assured that the plant gets a full 5-gallons of water – no more, no less.  This can be especially helpful when children assist with the watering.   And it assures that precious water isn’t wasted!

Fourth, ‘Homer Buckets’ allow you to water areas that are difficult to irrigate using other methods. We’ve even used them for native plant restoration projects.  Fifth, ‘Homer Buckets’ are easy and inexpensive to make.  They may even cost nothing, if you have access to used 5-gallon paint buckets.

Lastly, watering with ‘Homer Buckets’ is easy.  Place the buckets, fill them with a hose, then let the buckets drain for a half-hour or so.  You can efficiently and easily water a number of plants by simply moving the buckets once they’ve drained.  So undemanding!

We hope you’ll consider making some ‘Homer Buckets’ for your own garden.  They really are a fantastic solution for getting water to plants – even in times of drought!

Consider home-made spot-watering buckets for your garden!



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to:

Monday, April 5, 2021

Plant of the Month (April) : Wild Pansy/Johnny Jump-up – Viola tricolor

Wild violet (Viola tricolor): An early spring treat in
 Mother Nature's Montrose Garden

 The weather can still be cold and blustery in early April. In Mother Nature’s Montrose Garden (USDA Zone 6), not much is flowering yet, although the trees, shrubs and perennials are starting to leaf out.  One reliable early bloomer is the non-native Viola tricolor. It was planted by the former owner, and has re-seeded throughout the garden.  The scientific name is pronounced vye-OH-lah TRY-color.

Wild pansy is a common wildflower throughout much of Europe.  Some of its common names include: heartsease, heart's ease, heart's delight, tickle-my-fancy, Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, Johnny Jump-Up, come-and-cuddle-me, three faces in a hood, love-in-idleness, or pink of my john. [1] Planted in the U.S. since 1700’s, it can be found in many U.S. gardens.  It’s readily available and commonly sold as both plants and seeds.  The showier horticultural pansies were developed from the wild Viola tricolor. All are members of the Violaceae (Violet family).

Wild violet (Viola tricolor): small annual plant

Wild pansy is an annual or short-lived perennial, but freely reseeds. Plants are small, usually under 6-8 inches (15-18 cm) in height (but up to 12 inches in milder climates) and perhaps slightly more in diameter. The leaves are alternate and mostly oblong or lance-shaped, of a medium green that may be red- or purple-tinged early in the season. The leaves have a variety of shapes.  The lower blades are heart to egg shaped. 

In the wilds, Viola tricolor grows in European meadows, banks, fields and open areas.  It can be grown – as an annual – in all USDA Climate Zones. Johnny Jump-ups like cool weather and will die back with the heat.  In hot gardens they will appreciate a bit of shade, at least in the afternoons.

Wild violet (Viola tricolor): flowers

The flowers of Viola tricolor are truly charming; small but nicely colored. It blooms spring-summer (March-Sept). The flowers are solitary on stems above the foliage. A typical flower has violet or purple upper petals, white lateral petals and a yellow lower petal (see above). Several purple veins originate from the flowers' throat.  Some flowers are only purple, or two-toned – even all yellow or white.

The plants are self-fertile and pollinated by bees.  After blooming, the fertile flowers are replaced by seed capsules.  When mature, the capsule will divide into 3 parts and the seeds ejected. [2]

Wild violet (Viola tricolor): late winter

The seeds are small and can easily be carried on the wind. Seedlings tend to ‘jump up’ in favorable locations in the garden – hence the common name Johnny Jump-up. Thus, a few plants or packet of seeds can provide many years of enjoyment. Seedlings may emerge with cool fall weather, or with the warming soils of spring (see photos above and below).

Wild violet (Viola tricolor): seeds spread by
 wind  create a colony of plants

Many gardeners prefer to purchase nursery-grown plants. In that case, space plants one foot apart and be sure to water them in well.  But starting plants from seed is quite easy. If planting from seed, sow seeds in prepared beds in late winter or early spring.  They can also be started in pots indoors to plant out later.  Just barely cover the seeds, keep the soil moist and look for germination in 2-3 weeks.  Slugs and snails like the tender foliage, so watch for them!

Wild violet prefers cool, moist well-drained humus-rich soil. It does well in partial or dappled shade with protection from hot winds. It tolerates many soils but prefers a pH between 6 and 6.5 [3]   That being said, plants do very well in Mother Nature’s Montrose Garden, with a pH of near 8.0.

There are many uses for Viola tricolor in the home garden.  Many gardeners use it to border paths or flower beds.  It looks stunning massed as a groundcover. It is right at home in an alpine or rock garden; it would also be nice in an herb garden or around the edges of a vegetable plot.  It can be grown in containers, making it accessible to most.  And it does a lovely job of naturalizing around shrubs and perennials.  Yellow, green and blue-green dyes are obtained from the flowers. The leaves can be used in place of litmus in testing for acids and alkalis.

Wild violet (Viola tricolor): makes a good
 filler plant

Wild pansy is edible in small amounts; it contains chemicals that can be mildly toxic in large amounts. Young leaves and flower buds can be eaten (raw or cooked) or used to thicken soups. The flowers can be used as an attractive garnish for salads.  The leaves are sometimes also dried for tea. [3]

The plant has a long history of medicinal use in Europe.  The most common uses, to this day, are for skin conditions such as eczema and hives.  But the species was once used to treat epilepsy, asthma, skin diseases and a wide range of other complaints.  The plant was also traditionally known as a source for love potions, and is even referenced as such in Shakespeare’s plays. [3]  

Teas made from the dried plant promote coughing up phlegm, and were used for respiratory problems such as bronchitis, asthma, and cold symptoms.   Ointments, salves and poultices have been used in the treatment of diaper rash, weeping sores, itchy skin, varicose ulcers and ringworm. [2]   Viola tricolor and other species in the Violet family produce a number of interesting plant chemicals.  They are currently being studied to determine their usefulness in modern medicine.

In summary, Wild violet is a wonderful addition to the early spring garden. It adds an old-fashioned beauty to any setting.  While not a U.S. native, it works well with native plants, naturalizing around the garden like the native wildflowers.  Why not consider this little charmer for your own garden, even if just as a container plant?

Wild violet (Viola tricolor): in gravel mulch


  1. Viola tricolor - Wikipedia




We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to:

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Gardening Tip: Pruning Rabbitbrushes

Rabbitbrush shrubs need spring pruning.

Spring is almost here. The weather in Mother Nature’s Montrose Garden fluctuates between the chilly 40’s and pleasantly warm, although most nights hover around freezing. Some of the hardier shrubs are just beginning to leaf out.  One group of native bush Sunflowers – the Rabbitbrushes – are among the first.  And that means it’s time to prune them!

Several species of Rabbitbrush are native to the Four Corners states. We’ll feature a few as Plants of the Month in the coming year.  But in terms of pruning, the rules are pretty much the same.  Rabbitbrushes are pruned in early spring, when they begin to bud out – much like their cousins the Artemisias. And they are pruned quite substantially; also like some of the Artemisias.

Budbreak in Rabbitbush

In the wilds, bush Sunflowers like the Rabbitbrushes provide important winter browse for large animals like deer and elk, as well as smaller mammals (rabbits, ground squirrels, pocket gophers, etc.).  By late winter, plants are often severely eaten down by the wildlife. And, since The Rabbitbrushes and their native ‘pruners’ evolved together, Rabbitbrushes have developed the ability to grow back vigorously each spring.

Begin pruning Rabbitbrush the year after planting.

In fact, many native bush Sunflowers need a good pruning each spring. If they don’t get it, plants become woody, leggy – in short, less attractive than they should be. And pruning needs to begin in the first year after planting to keep a Rabbitbrush shrub full and lush (as they are in the wilds).

Rabbitbrush in early spring. Note green stems and sprouting buds.

Unlike some shrubs, Rabbitbrushes retain the ability to sprout from older wood. As shown above, even branches with a diameter of an inch or so are green; and buds can be seen below the cut.    This means you can prune a Rabbitbrush branch quite hard, as long as you leave at least four buds below the cut. 

Rabbitbrush before spring pruning.

Above is a Rabbitbrush before pruning.  The shrub was left unpruned over the winter (you can still see remnants of flowers and old leaves).  In colder climates (we’re USDA Zone 6), old growth is left on the plants to protect them from winter chill.

Partially pruned Rabbitbrush.

To give you an idea of our recommended pruning strategy, the picture above shows a plant that is half pruned.  You can see that quite a bit of mass – up to two-thirds of the branch length – can be removed, as long as there are heathy buds beneath.  The photo below shows a fully pruned bush.

Fully pruning Rabbitbrush.

At this point we leave the prunings around the plant to protect it and conserve soil moisture.  When the trimmings are dry, we’ll cut them into smaller pieces and use them as mulch.  And that’s pretty much all there is to say about pruning Rabbitbrushes.



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to:


Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Plant of the Month (March) : Meadow onion – Allium unifolium


Meadow Onion (Allium unifolium): late spring

There’s not much going on in our Zone 6 garden in early March. But some of the bulbs we planted last fall are starting to break ground, including Allium unifolium. So we decided to feature this lovely true bulb as our Plant of the Month.  The scientific name is pronounced: AL-ee-um  yu-nee-FOE-lee-um.

The Meadow onion is not native to Colorado.  It grows along the Central and Northern coast of California, from San Luis Obispo County into Oregon, and also in Baja California.  It grows in moist, often grassy areas on coastal cliffs in the coastal pine and mixed evergreen forests.  It tolerates moist soils and is most comfortable in clay.  These two preferences make it a good choice for many gardens.

Meadow Onion (Allium unifolium): bulbs

Allium unifolium is a true onion (genus Allium), a cousin to our culinary onions and garlic.  The onions were formerly included in a large bulb-forming family, the Lilliaceae.  Some taxonomists now recommend placing the onions in their own family, the Alliaceae. Others place the onions in the Amaryllis Family (Amaryllidaceae), along with such garden genera as Agapanthus, Amaryllis, Clivia, Narcissis and Zephyranthes.   Only time will tell where the Alliums will end up.

Colorado has about ten different species of native Alliums.  The vast majority grow on the Western Slope, usually above about 5000 ft elevation.   Six are native to Montrose County but most are difficult to find, even as seeds. Fortunately for Western gardeners, some non-local species can succeed in local gardens – if only you can find a source for the bulbs!   Fortunately, Allium unifolium is available even from some traditional bulb growers like Van Engelen Inc. (it’s a favorite in European gardens!).

Meadow Onion (Allium unifolium): early spring

Like most Alliums, Meadow onion is a fairly simple perennial.  Its leaves emerge from the bulb with the late winter rains.  We often see them start to emerge in February in our garden.  The leaves are the simple, strap-like leaves of the onions.  The genus name unifolium mean ‘single-leaf’; in fact, another name for this plant is the One-leaf onion.  As seen above, plants are indeed sparsely leaved (one to four leaves is typical).

Meadow Onion (Allium unifolium): flower bud

The leaves often start to wither from the tips (and sometimes wither altogether) before the flowers emerge.  Meadow onion blooms in spring or early summer: usually April or May, but a bit later in colder climates.   The flowers grow in dense clusters (umbels) on 1-2 foot (30-45 cm) flowering stalks. If you live in a dry place like much of Western Colorado, the flowering stalks may be a little shorter.  The buds are tightly packed in a membranous sheath (see above) at the tip of the growing flower stalk.   The stalks grow very quickly to their full height.

Meadow Onion (Allium unifolium): floral cluster

Meadow onion has the star- or bell-shaped flowers typical of the onions.  The six veined ‘petals’ are actually tepals (petals and sepals look alike).  The flowers are individually small (about ½ an inch across), but with 15 or more flowers per umbel, this onion is a showy bloomer.  The flower color is most often a pale lavender or pale pink, though white-flowering forms are known. 

Meadow Onion (Allium unifolium): flowers

The flowers contain both male and female parts (‘perfect’ flowers).  The pollen in this species is either gray or yellow.  The plants produce seeds in our garden, so they do attract some insect pollinators with their mildly sweet aroma.  While the literature specifies bees as pollinators, we more often see the flower flies (below).

Meadow Onion (Allium unifolium): flowerfly (pollinator)

Allium unifolium is easy to grow.  It can be grown in just about any soil, although it prefers the moisture-retaining clays.  It needs a neutral to alkali soil (pH 7.0-9.0). While it grows in full sun in Oregon, gardeners in warmer climates should plant this species in part shade (afternoon shade to fairly shady).  This plant does need good winter/early spring rains.  We sometimes have to supplement ours in dry winters.  Unlike some native bulbs, this species can take occasional summer water.

We let our plants go to seed, then let them self-seed naturally (or spread them where we want to start a new patch).   Patches increase slowly both by seed and by offsets (new little bulbs).  A modest investment in bulbs will increase to a nice grouping within 4-5 years.  We like to start out by planting 8-10 bulbs within a 2 square foot area.   Don’t worry about critters digging up the bulbs – they tend to leave onions alone. For more on planting bulbs see:

Meadow Onion (Allium unifolium): in garden

We love the flowers of this onion.  The color contrasts nicely with native grasses and wildflowers.  It’s great for brightening shady areas of the garden, for example, under trees.  The plants naturalize nicely, and can help ‘tie together’ parts of the garden with their pastel leaves and flowers. 

Bulbs are a perfect choice for bordering pathways, as an accent plant in a rock garden or along a garden wall. Meadow onion’s flowers have a light, sweet fragrance, making them a good choice for containers near seating areas and as cut flowers.  This bulb would do well around the drier edges of a vegetable garden or in an herb garden.  Native Californians did not eat it; however, at least one blogger uses the stems as a flavoring agent [ref. 1, below].

Meadow Onion (Allium unifolium): with other wildflowers

So why include Meadow onion in your garden?  First, it’s easy to grow and available from bulb dealers.  Second, it’s a little charmer that’s adaptable to garden challenges like clay soil and a bit of shade.  Thirdly, it provides an economical solution to providing masses of spring color – or to naturalize.

If you desire, Allium unifolium can be used as a flavoring agent.  The flavor is similar to that of garden onions – perhaps even better. All parts are edible, including the flowers (in a salad or as a garnish), leaves, flowering stems and bulb. Consider growing this in the vegetable garden, along with your chives or garlic-chives.  

And finally, Meadow onion has all the magic of a native perennial bulb.  It gives you something to look forward to, without much care, year after year.  It’s a seasonal treat, anticipated and enjoyed, that ties us to the land and its seasons.  We echo many previous garden mavens, in singing the praises of garden bulbs.


For more on gardening with native bulbs see:


For a gardening information sheet see: Co gardening sheet allium unifolium (

For more pictures of this plant see:

For plant information sheets on other Western native plants see:






We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to:


Saturday, February 6, 2021

Plant of the Month (February) : Purple Coneflower – Echinacea purpurea

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): plants in winter

February can be unpredictable in the Four Corners region. Weather can go from warm and sunny to cold and snowy very quickly. Making the garden look good this time of year can be a challenge. Plants that provide structural interest, even in winter, are a welcome solution. One such plant is the Purple Coneflower or Echinacea purpurea.  The scientific name is pronounced eck-kin-NAY-see-uh  pur-PURR-ee-uh.

Purple coneflower was probably never native to Colorado, although it does grow in neighboring Kansas.  This is really a wildflower of the eastern, southeastern and midwestern United States. It grows wild in prairies and open woodlands from Florida to the Canadian Province of Ontario.  It is commonly known as Purple Coneflower, Eastern Purple Coneflower, Hedgehog Coneflower and Echinacea.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): in Sunflower family.

Purple coneflower is a member of the Sunflower family (Asteraceae).  It was originally named Rudbeckia purpurea by Linnaeus in 1753. [1]   It was reclassified as Echinacea purpurea in 1794, so this species has been known to the scientific world for some time.   And it has long been used in gardens, although its popularity has greatly increased since the 1990’s, when it became more readily available.

Why plant a non-native sunflower in Western Colorado, particularly in a garden with a preponderance of Colorado and Western plants?  For several reasons, including its aesthetic characteristics, hardiness, un-fussy growth requirements and ease of propagation.  All of this make Echinacea purpurea a popular garden plant on the Western Slope.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): growth habit

Purple coneflower is an herbaceous perennial that common grows 2-4 ft. tall by 1-2 ft. wide (up to a meter tall by 25-30 cm). The foliage is somewhat coarse/bold in appearance (it is, after all, a sunflower). The stems are stiff and upright.  The largest leaves are low on the stems (5-12 inches long; 2-5 inches wide), simple and alternate, often with toothed margins (below).  The foliage is dark green, sometimes even tinged with purple.  The darker foliage contrasts nicely with many local shrubs that have silvery or blue-green foliage.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): foliage

Echinacea purpurea is a long blooming species, with the exact bloom period depending on the local climate.  In milder areas, it may bloom as early as April.  In our part of Western Colorado, it’s mainly a summer through fall bloomer, with heaviest blooming in early summer and late summer/early fall.  The long bloom period is another reason for this species popularity.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): flower (close-up)

The flowers of Purple coneflower exhibit the basic characteristics of the Asteraceae.  Flowers are clustered in ‘sunflower heads’, with lighter-colored ray flowers and darker disc flowers to the center (above).  The ray flowers are most typically purple or lilac, but may be white or pink.  The disc flowers cluster on a dome-shaped disc, which may be nearly flat to almost spherical.  The disc flowers, which are yellow or orange, produce the seeds (ray flowers are sterile). 

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): pale flowered variant.

We’ve noticed quite a bit of floral variability in the offspring of several plants we purchased last year.  Most have purple ray flowers (like the parents), but some have white rays and others lighter lilac-colored rays. Some have rays that are strongly recurved; others almost straight. Some have barely any ray flowers at all.   And all this from three purchased plants with ‘typical’ purple flowers! 

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): white-flowered variant

The natural variability of the species facilitates the development of cultivars with special characteristics. Cultivars such as 'White Swan' and ‘PowWow White’ have white flowers; 'Magnus' has bigger, flatter, purple rays, and ‘Ruby Star’ ('Rubenstern’) has darker, more recurved rays.  We suspect some hanky-panky produced the plants we purchased as the straight species!  And while we’re on the subject of cultivars, 'Kim's Knee High' and ‘Prairie Splendor’ are shorter plants (less than 2 ft.) with classic rose-purple flowers.  So, there’s something for every taste and requirement (unless you simply don’t like sunflowers).

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): easy to grow

Purple coneflower is easily grown in gardens from USDA Zones 3 to 8.  It’s not particular about soil texture or pH (except very acidic soils). While usually grown in full sun, it tolerates part-shade.  It’s a good bet for hot, dry sites, thriving on average or somewhat dry soils (our Water Zones 2 and 3 – see  But it’s not picky about water needs; it can take regular water.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): seedlings around mother plant

Echinacea purpurea is not a particularly long-lived perennial, at least not in Mother Nature’s Montrose Garden.  However, it does re-seed nicely – perhaps even too much so.  If you need to contain it, deadhead to prevent the seeds from maturing. On the other hand, the seeds serve as a good source of winter food for seed-eating birds.  And the bare seed heads add interest to the winter garden.

We don’t cut our Coneflowers back until spring.  Not only do perennials like Echinacea provide winter color. But retaining the old foliage helps the plants survive cold winter weather.   So, we wait until the spring warm-up to cut back the dead perennial foliage.  

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): seeds provide winter food for birds

The reasons to include Purple coneflower in a garden are many.  If you’re into habitat gardening, this species provides needed seasonal food. In addition to the seeds, the flowers provide nectar and pollen for a range of pollinators including native bees, hummingbirds and butterflies. The foliage also provides larval (caterpillar) food for the Silvery Checkerspot Butterfly and several species of moths.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): medicinal plant

The medicinal gardener will recognize Echinacea purpurea as a medicinal plant. In fact, extracts of Echinacea root are widely sold, with claims that they boost immunity.  Some studies do suggest that secondary metabolites produced by Echinacea species stimulate production of certain immune cells. [2]  The species has a history of use treating many ailments, particularly those with an infectious component.  At any rate, the flowers can be used to make a soothing tea, which may have beneficial effects.  As always, herbal medicines should be used in moderation, and only after consulting your healthcare provider.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): makes a good filler plant
 while shrubs are growiing

The most common reasons for planting Purple coneflower are its pretty flowers, long bloom season and modest care requirements.  The species is a good choice for filling in bare spots in the garden, particularly in a garden with new shrubs. It naturalizes nicely if allowed to do so.  And the flowers make attractive, long-lasting cut flowers.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): showy flowers make this
 a popular perennial.

Purple coneflower is showy when massed. It is a widely recognized and acceptable wildflower; a useful complement to shrubs and lawn, even in front yards.  Its hardy constitution makes it suitable for harsh conditions along curbs and walkways. It can be used in a naturalistic or cottage garden, prairie/meadow garden or traditional flower bed. 

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): dark foilage contrasts
 nicely with silvery native shrubs.

The relatively dark green foliage looks good with many silvery-foliage native shrubs and sub-shrubs.  The purple flowers make a lovely contrast, particularly with yellow-flowered sunflowers and white flowered species. Try pairing it with such natural associates as Coreopsis major, Rudbeckia hirta, Monarda fistulosa, Liatris spicata, Schizachyrium scoparium and Andropogon species for a prairie garden.

In summary, while not a Colorado native plant, Purple coneflower has many useful attributes. It’s readily available – both as plants and seeds. There are cultivars with specific properties.  And it looks nice with relatively little maintenance.  That’s probably why it is seen so commonly in local gardens.  Could you use a plant or two in your garden?

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea): a good choice for Western Colorado gardens.


For a gardening information sheet see: Gardening sheet echinacea purpurea (

For more pictures of this plant see:

For plant information sheets on other native plants see:


  2. Manayi A, Vazirian M, Saeidnia S (2015). "Echinacea purpurea: Pharmacology, phytochemistry and analysis methods". Pharmacognosy Reviews. 9 (17): 63–72. doi:10.4103/0973-7847.156353. PMC 4441164. PMID 26009695.




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