Long-headed Coneflower is a native erect perennial prairie plant that grows from one to three feet high with occasional branching, on stems that are green and smooth to slightly rough with hair.
The leaves are alternate, stalked, pinnate (deeply lobed), 3x as long as wide. Each leaf can have 3 to 14 lobes depending on the placement on the stem. Some larger lobes may have a few shallow teeth. Leaf surfaces usually have fine hair and are gland dotted. Upper stem leaves are smaller with 3 to 5 pinnate lobes and a short stalk.
The floral array is a solitary 2 to 3 inch high flower on a tall stalk, held well above the leaves.
The flowers are of two types. There are 4 to 12 yellow ray florets with rays that are ovate to elliptic in shape and hang downward. These are sterile. The yellow rays are not as long the central cone is high. The rays can also have a reddish-brown color. When the rays have this alternate color it is sometimes called "Mexican Hat Plant" (photos below). The central cone, which elongates with age, has 200 to 400+ disc florets that have greenish-yellow tubular corollas that shade to brown or purple at the outside tip as they mature. These are fertile and bisexual. The style branches at the tip, below which and arranged up against the style are the 5 stamens whose anthers are yellowish at pollen maturity, turning dark brown thereafter. The base of the flower head has two series of floral bracts (phyllaries), an inner series that are ovate to lanceolate in shape and an outer series of 5 to 14 (usually matching the number of rays) that are linear and much longer than the inner ones. Both series have fine hair.
Seed: Fertile florets produce a dry cypsela, rounded on one side, angled on the others, 1.2–3 × 1.2–2 mm, that has one or two tooth-like projections at the tip. These seeds are shaken loose by the wind. Seeds require 30 days of cold stratification for germination.
Habitat: Long-headed Coneflower has a deep taproot making it drought tolerant and it is well adapted to poorer drier soils - mesic to dry moisture conditions. On grazeland Long-headed Coneflower is palatable and nutritious to domestic grazing animals as well a source of seeds for birds and other wildlife. It is generally disease free but crowding by other plants in richer soils, while affecting the survival of the plants, can also allow mildew and crown rot to spread. It will self-seed.
Names: The scientific name of this plant has had several variations. The genus Ratibida is older and was at one time replaced by Lepachys, which is an old coneflower genus. The genus is now back to Ratibida, the derivation of which name is obscure. The species, columnifera, means 'in the shape of a column' which describes the tall cone. As to the authors of the plant classification, the plant was originally described by '(Nutt.)' which refers to Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859) English botanist who lived and worked in America from 1808 to 1841. On his many expeditions he collected many species that had been originally collected by Louis and Clark but lost by them on their return journey. His work was updated by two others - 'Woot.' is Elmer Otis Wooton (1865-1945) American botanist, Assistant Curator at the National Herbarium, Professor of Botany in New Mexico, and botanist at the US Dept. of Agriculture, who with 'Standl.' wrote Flora of New Mexico in 1915. "Standl.' is Paul Carpenter Standley (1884-1963) American botanist at the Field Museum of Natural History.
Comparisons: Long-headed Coneflower is not as tall a plant as the other member of this genus, the Gray-headed coneflower (R. pinnata) but with a much taller center cone - 2 to 3 inches tall, it distinguishes itself.
Above: 1st & 2nd photos - Long-headed Coneflower blooming in early July in the Upland Garden. 3rd photo - Upper stem leaves have fewer and narrower segments.
Below: 1st photo - Several of the green phyllaries of the outer series are visible protruding from under the base of the cone. The yellow ray florets are infertile. 2nd photo - The numerous cone disc florets have corollas that shade to brown or purple at the outside tip as they mature from the bottom of the cone to the top. The branched style can be seen in the lower florets.
Below: 1st photo - The underside of the flower head showing the two series of phyllaries - the outer series much longer and spreading outward between the rays. 2nd photo - Upper stem leaves are the smallest, with a short stalk and 3 to 5 deeply cut lobes.
Below: 1st photo - A large lower leaf. These have lobes that are more ovate in shape compared to the more narrow lobes of the smaller upper leaves. 2nd photo - The underside of a lower leaf showing the fine hair and the dotting of glands. Both top and underside will have fine hair and dotted glands.
Below: Fertile florets produce a dry cypsela, rounded on one side, angled on the others. Note the one or two tooth-like projections at the tip. These seeds are shaken loose by the wind.
Below: Two color variations of the type known as Mexican Hat Plant.
Notes: Eloise Butler introduced Long-headed Coneflower to the Garden on Sept. 1, 1915 when she brought in a root from the Belt Line Bridge (the Belt Line is the current highway 100 in Minneapolis). In August 1917 she planted 3 more sourced from the Midway area of Mpls/St. Paul, with additional plantings in 1924, '26, '27, '28, '31 and seeds of the red-rayed type in 1924. In her day the plant was classified as Lepachys columnaris. . Martha Crone did not report it there in her 1951 census even though she had reported planting it in 1950; she noted planting seeds in 1953 and '54, but it was not on the 1986 census either. Long-headed Coneflower was replanted (in the Upland Garden) after an absence of many years when Gardener Cary George reported planting it in 1995.
It is native to Minnesota with the primary populations being reported in the more dry counties bordering the Dakotas. Populations are also reported in the metro counties of Hennepin, Anoka, Ramsey and Washington. The addition of the word "prairie" to the common name does not imply a restriction to western prairie areas. Native (or long-established) populations of the plant have been reported in all states of the United States except upper New England , Virginia, Kentucky, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
R. columnifera and Gray-headed Coneflower, R. pinnata are the only two members of this genus in Minnesota.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"