Purple Coneflowers or Echinacea purpurea in British Columbia

Purple coneflowers are beautiful plants that are often seen in landscaped areas where I live. The wild plants are native to the eastern part of the United States. The cultivated ones are popular in the US, Canada, and other parts of the world. The flowers are large and showy. The central “cone” that gives them their name is often impressive.

The plant’s scientific name is Echinacea purpurea. It’s traditionally thought to have medicinal benefits, though scientists haven’t yet proved that this is the case. The cultivated plant is available in different varieties, includes ones that have white flowers.

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A purple coneflower and a bee

Where I live, purple coneflowers are often grown in large numbers beside black-eyed Susans. The combination of pink or purple flowers and bright yellow ones is a lovely sight. Purple coneflowers generally bloom for a long time. They can often be seen throughout the summer and even in early fall in the Greater Vancouver area.

Purple coneflowers and black-eyes Susans belong to the family Asteraceae, which means that they have a composite flower. The flower is technically known as an inflorescence. The centre contains disk flowers, properly called disk florets. The outer flowers that look like petals are actually ray flowers or ray florets. The “petals” often point downwards, making the central cone more obvious.

The flowers are pollinated by insects, including butterflies and bees. The small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae) is a Eurasian species that doesn’t occur in British Columbia, but I thought the photo shown below was too good to ignore.

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A small tortoiseshell butterfly on a purple coneflower in Moscow; photo by Bff, CC BY-SA 3.0 license

The genus name of the plant (Echinacea) is derived from the Greek word echinos, which means hedgehog. The word likely applies to the central cone of the flower. The disk flowers are arranged on a raised cone and do look spiny. The species name (purpurea) refers to the purple colour of the ray flowers, though they sometimes look more pink than purple.

The plant is a herbaceous perennial. Its leaves are long and narrow. They often have a toothed margin and a pointed tip. They are arranged in an alternate pattern on the stem. A group of purple coneflowers sometimes has a slightly untidy appearance, but it’s always an interesting and cheerful sight. The Italian Garden in Hastings Park in Vancouver has a lovely display of the plants every year.

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Echinacea purpurea in the Italian Garden in Vancouver

Echinacea purpurea supplements are popular, especially for boosting the immune system and treating colds. Scientific confirmation that they have a medicinal benefit is lacking, however. One reason for this might be the variability in the nature of the supplements. Some are made from the flowers of the plant, some from the leaves, and some from the roots. In some cases, extracts of additional species of Echinacea are present. The extraction process, the concentration of the chemicals, and the purity and quality of the supplements vary as well.

So far, scientists have found no to a very minor health benefit of Echinacea with respect to colds. The plant may have more to offer us medicinally, but at the moment scientists don’t know whether this is the case.

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A beautiful group of Echinacea purpurea plants; photo by H. Zell, CC BY-SA 3.0 License

It should be noted that some people are allergic to members of the Asteraceae family (also known as the Compositae or the daisy family). Echinacea could be dangerous for these people. The supplement can cause nausea and stomach upset in anyone.

It’s important that someone who has a health problem or who is taking other medications checks with their doctor about the advisability of using an Echinacea supplement. Pregnant and nursing women should probably avoid taking the supplement but should consult their doctor. Someone who wants to give Echinacea to young children should also check with their doctor before doing this.

The dose and duration of supplementation are important considerations for everyone. Hopefully scientists will soon learn more about the plant and its effects on humans so that we can get a clearer picture of Echinacea’s possible benefits or harm. Until then—and very likely afterwards—we can at least enjoy the beauty of a collection of purple coneflowers in summer.

References

Plants in the First Snow of the Winter in Burnaby

We recently got the first snow of the winter where I live. I hate driving in snow, but I love walking in it (as long as the ground isn’t icy) and I love photographing it. A delicate collection of fresh snow on plants is a lovely sight.

When I walked to a local food store to buy a few items in the late morning, the snow was more like hail and wasn’t settling very much. When I left the store five or at the most ten minutes later, the hail had turned to real snow and the road that had been black when I entered the store was now white.

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Mature English ivy near my home

Of course, I had to walk along the urban trail to see what I could photograph. Where I live, an “urban trail” is a wide tarmac or gravel path with natural, semi-natural, or cultivated borders. It enables pedestrians and cyclists to travel safely and pleasantly through urban and suburban areas. The trails pass by or near popular areas such as parks, schools, shopping centres, and medical offices. There’s a photo of one section at the end of this post.

The trail travels near my home and passes through some areas with trees and other plants that existed before the path was created. These areas are always interesting to photograph. They provide a chance for nature study as well as a useful route to a desired destination.

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Juvenile English ivy beside the trail

The first plant that I photographed after I left the store was the mature English ivy (Hedera helix) shown in the initial photo in this post. It looks quite different from the juvenile stage, which is shown above. The juvenile leaves are lobed and have the ability to climb. The mature and reproductive stage has oval leaves and doesn’t climb. The first plant still has the clusters of stalks that bore the purple berries.

Some people find ivy and its ability to spread horizontally and vertically a nuisance, which I understand, whiles others love these abilities and think the plant is attractive. It’s certainly an interesting plant.

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Western sword fern in the snow

The western sword fern (Polystichum munitum) is a common and very noticeable sight in my part of the world. The fern is evergreen and can therefore be appreciated all year long. It grows in the wild and in a cultivated form. The fronds grow in clumps and lean outwards from a central point. Each bears leaflets, or pinnae. Unlike the case in many ferns, the pinnae don’t divide into small ones.

Each pinna has a lobe pointing forward at its base, as can be seen on the frond on the left in the photo below. The frond also shows rows of brown dots on its undersurface. These are called sori. Each sorus (the singular form of the word) contains spore cases that release reproductive spores. The sori of the sword fern are green at first and turn brown later.

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A closer view of western sword fern fronds

English holly (Ilex aquifolium)  is an attractive and introduced plant that is sometimes considered to be invasive in my part of the world. I actually photographed the plant below as I was going to the store along the trail. You may be able to see a few pieces of hail on the conifer leaves on the bottom left of the photo.

I always enjoy seeing a holly bush with its lovely red berries, especially around Christmas time. The plant does seem to be spreading in my area, though. I hope it doesn’t become a problem.

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I often travel along the urban trail where I took the photographs shown above. Its borders vary considerably. In some places they are carefully cultivated, as shown in the photo below. In others they are wilder and left to their own devices, unless they interfere with the trail itself or with the water flow in the creek that travels beside one section of the trail. I took the photo of the sword fern in one of these wilder areas.

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A section of the trail on the day after the snow

As can be seen in the photo above, the snow generally doesn’t last for long where I live. We may get a little more this weekend. As usual, though, the weather forecast may not be accurate. If the snow does appear, I plan to take more photos along a different section of the trail and at a higher elevation.