Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
The striking prairie coneflower occurs in every county in North Dakota. This plant is another of those species that are generally distributed on the grasslands of the Great Plains and locally distributed at scattered sites far to the east. Plants also can be found from British Columbia south to Arizona, at elevations up to 7,000 ft.
Prairie coneflower is a perennial about a foot and a half tall. Several stems usually grow from the crown of a taproot. Leaves about three inches long are divided into five to nine narrow leaflets. The upper one-third of the stem is bare except for the flower heads. The flower heads consist of several hundred tiny purplish-brown flowers that form a cylinder about one inch long. At the bottom of the cylinder appear about a half-dozen bright yellow rays about an inch long. Fruits are tiny, winged achenes about 1/16-inch long.
Prairie coneflower thrives on heavily and moderately grazed pastures in our area. The Cheyenne used the leaves and stems to make snakebite and poison ivy remedies other tribes made tea from the flowers. The plant is sometimes grown as an ornamental.
The coneflowers are members of the huge sunflower family (Asteraceae). Aster means "star" in Greek in reference to the radiate arrangement of the flowers into heads. The genus Ratibida was named by an odd eccentric wanderer-botanist named Constantine Rafinesque-Schmaltz (1773-1840), who often assigned unexplained names to plants. The specific epithet columnifera means "bearing columns" in botanical Latin in reference to the long cylindrical flower heads. Prairie coneflower was first collected for science by the English botanist Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859) who visited what now is North Dakota in 1810-1811.