Friday, August 1, 2014

Wildflower Wednesday: A Case of Mistaken Identity

No, I know it's not Wednesday, and Wildflower Wednesday was last week.  But I seem to be operating at least a week behind these days, and I'm sure our hostess Gail won't mind that I'm a little late.

July and August are good months for the natives in my garden.  
There are black-eyed Susans, Rudbeckia hirta.

And Brown-eyed Susans,  Rudbeckia triloba, which are quickly spreading in various parts of my garden.

There is a young 'Little Joe' Joe-Pye Weed, a few Phlox pilosa still blooming, and, of course, there are coneflowers--lots of coneflowers.   But there should be a lot more natives than this.  Last year I planted quite a few seedlings of prairie plants, expecting to see Royal Catchfly and Phlox pallida, among others, either last year or this, but so far they have been no-shows.  I don't know if they died from lack of water last year or were crowded out by the many thugs in my butterfly garden, but I've really been disappointed.

So imagine how happy I was a few weeks ago to notice a few small yellow flowers rising above the sea of goldenrod and aster foliage.  I scrounged around the plant and found a marker nearby--"Tall Coreopsis," it read, and checking my garden journal last year, yes, indeed I did plant a Tall Coreopsis, a native found throughout Illinois.  When friend Beckie visited my garden last week, I pointed it out, and she said, "Oh, you have some gray-headed coneflowers!"  "No, " I replied, " this is a Coreopsis tripteris."  I'm not sure she was convinced, but she was too polite to pursue the subject.  The more I thought about it, the flowers certainly did look more like gray-headed coneflowers, and I thought I'd better do a little research.

Ratibida pinnata has composite flowers with 13 drooping yellow florets and an oblong head of disk florets that grows to be 1/2 to 3/4 inches tall. That should have been enough to identify this plant, but just to make sure, I checked the leaves.  The leaves near the top of each stem of Ratibida are smaller and alternate, while the leaves of the Tall Coreopsis are opposite. That clinched it--my initial i.d. was wrong, and these were indeed gray-headed coneflowers.  I think one of the things that confused me was the height, but my sources say that these coneflowers can grow up to 4 feet tall, which mine have definitely achieved.

The head of the flower is brown when mature, but starts out as a greenish-gray, which is how it gets its name as "gray-headed."  The flowers appear in early to late summer and will bloom for one-two months.  It  likes full sun but will grow in part shade, too, and isn't fussy about soil.  In fact, it can flop over if "spoiled by too much water or fertile soil."(Illinois  All of this makes it a perfect addition to almost any wildflower/native garden.

Each flower head has its own stalk.  The stems are slender and delicate, causing them to sway in the breeze.  Indeed, I had trouble photographing these flowers for several days because of the breeze.

Many kinds of insects visit this flower, especially several varieties of bees, who enjoy both the nectar and the pollen. Wasps, flies, some butterflies, and beetles also visit the plant as well as caterpillars of some butterflies and moths. Goldfinches occasionally eat the seeds.

Native Americans used to make a tea from the flower cones and leaves; one tribe used the root to cure toothaches. 

Gray-headed Coneflowers are fairly common in Illinois and, according to Illinois, are "fairly easy to grow."  I'm glad to hear that because I've always admired these lovely flowers and hope they continue to grow and colonize in my small butterfly garden.

For more interesting natives and wildflowers, visit Gail at Clay and Limestone, where every day is Wildflower Day!


  1. I love the Grey-headed Coneflowers Rose.
    I like the fact the petals droop and blow in the breeze. So very pretty.
    In fact, I like them so much I may ask my local nursery to see if they can source some for next year.

    A beautiful wildflower......

    Have a good weekend Rose.

  2. next door, where they haven't mowed the lawn, there is a swathe of white rain daisies. My garden is too much planted for them to find a corner.

  3. Hi Rose! Nice, informative post! It seems that sometimes the gray headed coneflower can be slightly fragile looking... Tall and slender. Really pretty, though. We have an area that was cleared in our "Way Back" a year ago, in which I would like to sow windflowers! I have a number of plants to Move from my raised bed area. Aren't we enjoying a wonderful summer? :-)

  4. The yellow flowers are really cheerful and its good to see warm colours in the height of the summer.
    Maggie x

    Nuts in May

  5. I think the Gray-Headed Coneflowers have such an interesting shape. They add a nice touch of whimsy to a garden. Interesting that we both tried fall seed-sowing and we both had less-than-stellar results. Maybe they'll surprise us next season. It is fun to have pleasant surprises every season in the garden, isn't it?

  6. Gotta love garden friends who help you out with plant IDs. Those are the best kinds. So glad you got it figured out. They are lovely! I've planted a bunch in my wild areas but so far none have showed up. I will go look now tho.

  7. Cheryl, These coneflowers are natives here, and I always see them in prairie plantings. I've always admired them and am so glad to see them in my garden at last.

    Diana, I have a feeling that is the problem with some of the seedlings I've planted. The asters and goldenrod have crowded them out.

    Shady, I have a "Way Back," too, where I've tried to plant some wilder and rambling natives. But my Husband's over-enthusiasm with the Round-up this year put an end to that experiment for now:(

    Maggie, I do love these yellow flowers, especially when they wave in the breeze.

  8. Beth, I can't believe I mis-identified this plant, when they're one of the few yellow flowers I usually know:) I'm hoping, too, that next year some of the other seeds and seedlings will surprise me as well.

    Tina, Beckie and I are a pair--we've made more mistakes in i.d.'ing plants, especially when we trade seedlings:) But it does make for some interesting surprises in the garden!

  9. Funny that the Grey headed coneflower looks more like a droopy blackeyed susan. Maybe just to my eyes. What ever it is gorgeous. I see them around here in the wild from time to time. Lucky you to have them in your garden.

  10. Hi Rose, that Ratibida pinnata is a very striking looking plant, I love the drooping petals, like a more extreme helenium.

  11. I've never grown these but I've mistaken plants, too. I like how they're petals seem to blow beneath them like a skirt. :o) Cool plant!

  12. I always admire gardens with coneflowers at this time of year, I absolutely love them, all sorts of coneflowers, but my own garden is not really suited for that sort of prairie plants – much better suited for fuchsias, lilies and other shady plants. So I have to resort to admire them on your lovely photos instead :-)

  13. I like those ribbony petals -- they look like some sort of delicate fabric waving and twisting in the breeze.

  14. Well, a rose by any other this one and yet I don't have it in my garden. On the list! Oh, and I loved your Fling pictures. Perhaps I will make it next year.

  15. I love coneflower and did not realize there is a gray-headed one. I am so used to seeing the bus yellow ones in drifts around here that I never took notice they all may not be the same. The droopy petals have been common on so many because of the lack of rain, but this year they are all perky. I would say you cannot have too many coneflower, but the way they multiply, many would shoot me here. LOL

  16. I knew black/brown eyed susans came in 2 colors but I didn't know about yellow coneheads. What a remarkable plant! Yeah for native wildflowers! See my response about lobster ladies at our farmers' market.

  17. Oh, I love the petals of those coneflowers swaying in the breeze. Like you say, a bit of a nightmare to photograph but they look so lovely. It must have been great to see the plant suddenly appear.

  18. I have a bunch of these, I always thought the common name was yellow coneflower. They are a great plant, very tough and drought resistant. Also I like the bright, clear yellow and the ray petals that flop down like droopy dog's ears.

  19. I have a bunch of these, I always thought the common name was yellow coneflower. They are a great plant, very tough and drought resistant. Also I like the bright, clear yellow and the ray petals that flop down like droopy dog's ears.

  20. Lovely! We had a coreopsis patch that tried to take over an entire bed a coupel of years ago, lending truth to the saying, first it sleeps, then it creeps, then it leaps. Still a favorite with us, though!

  21. Oh I love this! They remind me somewhat of the Rudbeckia maxima I had, but I like these even better with their drooping petals. They look like little skirts or badminton birdies. Very cute! Too bad your other little seedlings didn't come back. I always hate when a plant doesn't make it.

  22. Rose girl : ) You have taken such pretty pictures of this flower .. I have never heard of them before but they are indeed very interesting!
    I love the way the petals look like a long wavy skirt .. like a Hawaiian one almost ? LOL
    Yes identification can be one tricky subject when we are not 100% sure.
    I write everything down but this Fall I hope to put actual markers on the ones I have to keep an eye on for the next season.
    This was a great post on a wild flower I had no idea about!
    Thanks !
    Joy : )

  23. We bought a plant from the garden centre last week because I loved it on sight. It's labelled as a black-eyed Susan but doesn't look like yours at all. In fact it doesn't look as I thought. I'll post a photo and see what you think.

    Your grey-headed coneflowers are so lovely and bright.

  24. Thank you very much for this information. I found it all very interesting. Actually, I think I've seen these flowers lately and wondered what they were. However, since I live in Colorado, I wonder if this variety even grows here. It would not be native as far as I know. I do think they are not only interesting but beautiful. Thanks for sharing the results of your homework with us.

  25. I planted some of the dried flower heads at end of season and ended up with huge bed of them in garden at weekend house outside of Chicago. Easy to grow and a tomato trellis can help prop them up if needed (sandy soil here along the lake so definitely needed here)


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