Posted by Aaron Barton on Mar 30th 2023

Ratibida (Prairie/Gray-Headed Coneflower)

Glowing with bright summer color and unique thimble-like blooms, Ratibida, of the Aster family, Asteraceae, are fantastic Minnesota native perennials that effortlessly transform sunny perennial landscapes with their bright blooms, unique foliage, and airy habit. A genus of seven North American species, there are two Minnesota native Ratibida species: prairie coneflower, Ratibida columnifera (ruh-TIBB-ih-duh kol-um-NEE-fer-uh), and gray-headed or yellow coneflower, Ratibida pinnata (ruh-TIBB-ih-duh pih-NAY-tuh). Both species thrive in full sun sites, are drought tolerant once established, and bloom beautifully throughout the season from early summer through late summer. Ratibida are also generally unaffected by deer or rabbit feeding due to their stiff, scented, hairy leaves and stems, and are best left standing in the fall as their seeds offer great winter interest and food for songbirds.

Prairie coneflower, Ratibida columnifera, also referred to as upright or long-headed prairie coneflower, is the smaller of the two species, reaching 24-36” tall and 12-24” wide. Perfect for low sunny borders, rock gardens, and pollinator gardens, upright prairie coneflower have a loosely upright form with beautiful 5-11 lobed, deeply pinnate, coarse green leaves up to six inches long, looking their best when planted in large groupings due to their airy, open habit. Slender, thimble-like flowers up to two inches long rise above the foliage on stiff stems, comprised of numerous disc florets that bloom concentrically from the bottom upward. Flower heads are skirted by a lower ring of four to twelve ray florets (petals) ranging in color from bright yellow, to bicolor yellow and red, to deep rusty red. A durable, low maintenance perennial, Ratibida columnifera thrives in poor soils, including sites exposed to road salt.

Gray-headed or yellow coneflower, Ratibida pinnata, is the larger species of the pair, maturing to 48-60” tall and 24-36” wide. Gray-headed coneflower produces slender upright clumps of feathery green foliage up to eight inches long that, like its shorter relative, is most impactful when massed in large groupings, shining as a sunny background planting or specimen to emphasize their dramatic foliage and bright yellow color. Stout, almost spherical composite gray flower heads are comprised of disc florets that bloom concentrically from the bottom upwards, skirted by a flashy ring of reflexed, bright yellow ray flowers up to three inches long. Bloom heads turn from a dusty light gray to a rich brown color as blooms expire, exuding a mild anise scent if crushed. An excellent addition sure to make a statement, gray-headed coneflower thrive in rain gardens, pollinator gardens, and natural-style landscapes, tolerating poor soils including dry clay or sandy sites, as well as deicing salts.  

Happy planting!