Winter Weeds: Purple-headed Coneflower

The trees are bare and the flowers are gone but I won't stop going outdoors just because the growing season is over. 

There's still a lot to see in winter.  The herbaceous plants have become interesting identification challenges. 

Have you ever seen a brown plant skeleton and wondered what it was?  I have and I'd like to learn more, so today I'm beginning a Wednesday series on identifying weeds in winter.

I mentioned this idea to Marcy Cunkelman and she was already on top of it with a collection of photographs from her garden.  Marcy knows her winter weeds because she doesn't clear her garden in the fall.  If you haven't cleared yours yet, don't do it!  Leave the flowers standing.  (I'll tell you why next week.)

Before we begin, here are some tips that will help you identify winter weeds.  These are expanded from a great book that has helped me a lot:  Weeds in Winter, written and illustrated by Lauren Brown, W. W. Norton, 1976.  The book has pen-and-ink drawings of the weeds and a helpful key system based on these fieldmarks:

  • Smell the plant.  This is a great clue.  Crush the fruit, seeds, leaves or stem.  If it smells like mint, it's in the mint family.  If it smells like parsley or carrots it's in the parsley family.  Smoky smell is the daisy family, burning rubber smell is the tomato family.  The list goes on.
  • Look at the leaves.  How are they arranged on the stalk?  Opposite each other or alternate?  Wrapping the stem or freestanding?  Rough or smooth?  Note their shape, if still recognizable.
  • Look at the stem.  Is it fuzzy? Smooth?  Shiny?  Thorny?  Rough?  Triangular?  Square?
  • Notice where the plant is growing (if it isn't in a garden).  In a swamp?  On a dry hillside?  In a meadow or a forest?  By a road?
  • Are similar plants nearby?   Your individual plant may be damaged or imperfect but similar plants will provide the characteristics of the species.
  • Look at it thoroughly.  Sometimes the seed pod is your best clue, as we will see today.

So, to begin.

Our first "Winter Weed" is Purple-headed Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).  Its skeleton stands two to five feet high on a sturdy, rough stem.  Its leaves are alternate on the stem, toothed, egg-shaped and very rough on both sides like fine sandpaper.  As far as I can tell, it doesn't smell.

When the flower first bloomed the central disk was flat but as the flower matures the disk rises into a cone.  In winter the seed cone looks like a bristly thistle, but don't expect it to look that way for long.  American goldfinches love these seeds and will cling to the stem to pick them off. 

The goldfinches already ate half of Marcy's coneflower seeds.  Now you can see the cone.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

5 thoughts on “Winter Weeds: Purple-headed Coneflower

  1. Great that you have set up this weed ID series. I sure have lots of them as I am a weed advocate. The Brown book is wonderful but I sure wish she had photos instead of the line drawings. Will be following your series. — barbara

  2. I have been trying for YEARS to teach people that not all weeds are the same. Especially the native flowers that most people see as weeds..goldenrods, asters, even Joe-pye Weed and Ironweed. When we had the dedication of the NATIVE Outdoor Classroom at East Pike Elem. School, many of the flowers and some shrubs were from my yard…I even had to tell the principal and many others including school board members, that these are NOT WEEDS, but natives and explain how they will survive when other non-native plants wont. They did great this year in the extreme heat and drought. Have you priced the cost of a native plant? At least this is catching on and it is much easier to find them. I do share as much as possible and I don’t clean up my gardens until I barely see the “noses” of the daffodils starting up in late Feb. Then I clear the gardens and watch the gradual change of the seasons from March thru November, when the grasses are in full plume and the sparrows “parachute them to the ground” eating seeds.

  3. The goldfinches have been eating my purple coneflower seeds for weeks! They haven’t stripped them bare like Marcy’s. Maybe it is just a matter of time…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *