One of the most widely recognized prairie wildflowers is the prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera). Also known as long-headed coneflower and upright prairie coneflower, the species ranges over prairies from Canada to Mexico, particularly on well drained soils. If it is not in flower in your area now, it will be soon. The flowering period generally runs from June through August here in North Dakota.
Prairie coneflower is a member of the aster family. It generally grows from 1-3 feet tall from a stout taproot. Many members of the aster family such as the sunflowers, produce a head with inconspicuous disk flowers in the center, with the ray flowers, which produce petal-like rays, on the periphery. In the genus Ratibida, however, the disk flowers form a cylinder (I probably should say column) up to around an inch and a half long, with the ray flowers at the base, which in this species are yellow. One terminal head per stem is the rule in Ratibida. However, occasionally there are two or more stems growing out from the taproot.
Prairie coneflower is a wildflower species commonly used in seed mixes for prairie restoration. It is also gaining in popularity as an ornamental. It is showy, easy to grow, is drought tolerant, and has a long blooming time.
Two forms of this species are often available through garden centers and the various seed sources. Most of what we see on the native prairie is the form that produces yellow ray flowers. But occasionally a prairie coneflower is observed with deep red ray flowers. That is the other form, and it is often sold as the variety “Mexican hat.”
Native American tribes used prairie coneflower for a variety of medical conditions such as to treat stomachache. It was also used to treat snake bite and exposure to poison ivy. A tea was also made from the leaves.
While on a prairie tour many years ago, I visited with a lady that grew up during World War II. She mentioned that as a child during the war she and other children in here home area of north central South Dakota collected the mature heads of prairie coneflower to be used in the war effort as stuffing in soldiers’ life jackets.