It has been speculated that an ancestral Echinacea species spread into middle Tennessee during the hypsothermal period following the last Ice Age. Conditions at that time would have been drier with prairies extending into much of the central eastern U.S. Those prairies are now covered by forests. As conditions became wetter, Echinacea populations became more isolated within the prairie-like habitat of the cedar glades that were eventually surrounded by forests. This isolation resulted in a divergence and speciation of E. tennesseensis. Tennessee coneflower is one of the plants that only thrives in the cedar glades of central Tennessee.

Tennessee Coneflower is an herbaceous perennial plant that can reach up to 30 inches in height.Alternate hairy basal leaves surround the stems. The pink to purple blooms range up to 3 inches wide with divided rays. The genus name Echinacea comes from the Greek word echinos, meaning hedgehog or sea-urchin. This references the spiny copper center cone found on the majority of flowers in this genus. The plant has has no serious disease or insect problems although Japanese beetles and leaf spot may occasionally be troublesome.

In my yard, the bright pink to light purple flowers crown the plant from the middle of spring until mid-autumn. Unlike the flowers of other Echinaceas which have petals that droop downward, petals of this species are upturned and cup-like. The hairy, dark green leaves are distinctive and cluster around the lower part of the stems. Flowers appear as early as mid-May and often last as late as October. Flowering reaches a peak during June and July.

The flowers of this plant differ from other coneflower species in that the tips of the rays are upturned rather than reflexed downward. The color is deeper and brighter than most other coneflowers. In its native habitat, the plant sends a long tap root down into cracks in the ground in order to locate better soil and to find moisture below the rocks of the three cedar glades where it lives. Most tree are unable to grow in this shallow soil consisting mostly of exposed bedrock. However, the red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) grows at the edges of these glades in cracks in the bedrock where the roots can gain a foothold. Tennessee coneflowers will not grow well and thrive in a location covered by more than 50% shade.

Reproduction of the plant occurs by cross-pollination with other plants. This is achieved by insects like bumblebees, honeybees and butterflies. The Tennessee Coneflower appears to lack effective methods of dispersing its seeds thus restricting the plant’s ability to colonize. As indicated by the common name, this coneflower is endemic to Tennessee alone where it is limited to five sites located within approximately 105 miles of Nashville.

Currently, the greatest threat to the Tennessee Coneflower is the destruction and alteration of its habitat due to residential, commercial, and industrial development, road-building, heavy grazing by livestock, off-road vehicle use, and encroaching vegetation. The plant has been over-collected for ornamental use as well as for its perceived medicinal benefits. Although there are many suitable glades in Middle Tennessee, this particular species of coneflower is restricted to only a few of them due primarily to its difficulty colonizing. 

Populations on state land are managed by the Tennessee Department of the Environment and Conservation and/or the Tennessee Division of Forestry. The Nature Conservancy owns two sites that support the species. Some private landowners have made agreements with the State of Tennessee to help preserve the plant. Tennessee Coneflowers have been transplanted to the Cheekwood Botanic Garden in Nashville as well as the Warner Nature Center. They are also growing in a number of home gardens like mine.