BY MELISSA SERENDA
July is prime time for one of my favorite pollinator plants in the garden, gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata). This elegant flower is an icon of prairies, and is native to most of the eastern United States. In bloom, its compact brown head is made up of hundreds of tiny, petal-less brown disc florets, ringed with a dozen or so drooping, bright-yellow ray florets. If you’ve walked around any of the city’s prairie plantings you have certainly seen these cheery blooms in the height of summer, likely abuzz with bees and other pollinators.
Although its slender stems and pinnately-divided leaves appear more delicate than some of the other summer-blooming prairie plants like the broad-shouldered cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) and its relatives, R. pinnata holds its own on the prairie and in the garden. Full sun is preferred, but it seems to do well in a wide range of conditions and soil types. Individual plants grow 3-to 5-feet tall—a convenient height if you enjoy watching the pollinators go about their business.
The individual plants are generally well-behaved, however they self-seed with great enthusiasm. In winter, the dried seedheads resemble oversized matchsticks lolling atop their stems, and the mature seeds can be easily rubbed off and collected (giving off a pleasant anise-like scent).
Although our human eyes are drawn to the yellow “petals” of the ray florets, those florets are sterile and offer no reward to insects; all the good stuff for the bees is found in the disc florets that comprise the rounded “cone” of the coneflower. In addition to many species of our native bees, R. pinnata is visited by wasps, flies and butterflies, and its seeds can be eaten by goldfinches over the winter. And best of all, it is also host to the extraordinary camouflaged looper, a caterpillar that decorates itself by snipping bits of flower petals and attaching them to its back with silk (pictured below)!
Gray-headed coneflower also has a little cousin, known as upright prairie coneflower or Mexican Hat (Ratibida columnifera). Generally growing to a height of no more than a couple feet, R. columnifera seems less assertive in the landscape and prefers conditions a bit drier than R. pinnata. Its rounded head of disc florets is considerably elongated and “column”-like, and its petals or ray florets are shorter and wider, and may have a dark red tint or wash over part or all of the yellow. Upright prairie coneflower is a plant of the Great Plains more than our local tallgrass prairies and thus not commonly seen in local prairie plantings, but can be an interesting addition to suitable gardens.
If you have a nice sunny spot and a penchant for pollinators, give gray-headed coneflower or its columniferous cousin a try.