Echinacea, popularly known as coneflower, has created a sensation among those who like to dabble in herbal health. German medical studies have proven that echinacea does indeed boost the immune system, and is useful in treating a number of common ailments. We'll talk more about using echinacea medicinally later in this article, but first, let's get it growing.
The good news for gardeners is that echinacea is not only useful, it's also a beautiful addition to your perennial beds and borders, and is hardy even in very cold climates. The only thing echinacea can be somewhat fussy about is too much moisture. It likes a fairly dry soil, and should never have to sit very long with it's roots in wet, soggy soil.
There are nine species of echinacea, but the flowers we are most familiar with come from the species E. purpurea. This includes the popular purple coneflower and its white cousin, 'swan' . Given rich, amended soil, plants reach a height of 3 to 4 feet and produce flowers 4 to 6 inches across. In most varieties, the petals droop after growing outward from the cone, accounting for the name given to the plants in the Ozarks: droops. Their long, strong stems make them ideal candidates for the cutting garden. Coneflower, native to the open woods and prairies of Ohio and Iowa south to Louisiana and Georgia, makes a showy backdrop for low-growing summer annuals or perennials.
How to Grow Echinacea
Coneflowers enjoy a sunny location with fertile soil. If your soil isn't particularly fertile, work in a little compost and supplement with a good . Well-drained soil is a must. In moist areas, you might need to plant in a raised bed. New plants and seedlings will need to be watered until they are established. Once they are growing well, they will thrive on the available moisture from rain except in extremely dry areas.
Echinacea plants are available in most nurseries and garden centers, but they tend to be overpriced. Luckily, they are easy to grow from seeds. Plant echinacea seeds in early spring, as soon as the soil can be worked, and when you still expect another frost or two. Sow the seeds 1/4" deep and 2" apart. When the seedlings are an inch tall, thin to 18" apart. Rabbits and hedgehogs think new echinacea shoots are a tasty treat, so protect your seedlings if these animals are known to visit your garden.
Alternatively, you can plant your seeds about 2 months before your first fall frost. This gives the plants enough time to become established, and although they won't come to bloom the first year when you plant them this late, they will give you a much better bloom period next year.
Regular weeding is a must because echinacea doesn't compete well with weeds, but other that that, plants require very little care. Expect blooms from June to October in most areas. Echinacea will be one of the last plants in your garden to go dormant.
Echinacea plants are good about self sowing as long as you leave a few of the last flowers to dry up naturally. When weeding the garden in spring, watch for tiny coneflower seedlings. They can be nurtured where they are, but since Mother Nature doesn't always plant her seeds exactly where we want them, you will probably want to move them to a better location.
You can also harvest the seeds to use next year. Choose a few fully mature and ripened flower heads, and cut them, leaving a nice long stem. Hang the flowers upside down with the flower heads enclosed in paper bags. This will allow them to release their seeds into the bag when they are ready. Once the seeds have fallen, remove the chaff (plant debris) and spread the seeds out on a newspaper for 10-12 days to finish drying. They will keep in the refrigerator in a glass jar with a tight fitting lid for up to a year.
This is an easy way to keep a ready supply of seeds for yourself and to exchange with other gardeners. The only trick is to make sure you have a fully mature flower head so that you will harvest mature, viable seeds.
Older, established plants can be divided. In cold climates plants should be divided in late summer or spring. In warm climates, divide your plants in fall or spring. Here are four easy steps to dividing Echinacea plants.
1. Start by loosening the soil around the perimeter of a mature plant's root system, then insert your spade under the plant and lift it up. Shake the plant gently to remove excess soil.
2. Pull the root clump apart or cut it apart with a sharp knife. Each division should have its own roots and stems.
3. Plant each clump in soil that has been amended with compost and a .
4. Water regularly to keep the soil moist but not soggy until you see signs of new growth.
For medicinal purposes, you'll want to harvest some roots and some flower tops. For best quality, wait until your plants are 3 years old. Roots are harvested in the fall when the tops have gone to seed and the plants have experienced a couple of hard frosts. Tops are harvested just as the flowers start to open. Whether harvesting tops or roots, the dried herb will be good for one year. Be sure to date the jars containing the herb so you won't use them past their potency date.
1. Using a sharp knife cut off a portion of the root, leaving plenty for the plant to grow on.
2. Cut any pieces larger than 1 inch into smaller pieces to avoid mold growth during the drying process.
3. Wash thoroughly and pat dry.
4. Hang the root pieces or lay them out on screens in a well-ventilated area away from direct sunlight. If the pieces are large it may take several weeks for them to dry.
5. When completely dry, store in a tightly covered glass jar in cool, dark place.
Harvesting Flower Tops
1. Using a sharp knife, cut the plant at the point where the first healthy leaves are growing.
2. Lay the tops on a screen or hang them upside down in bundles out of direct sunlight. Make sure they aren't crowded so that air can't circulate around them.
3. When completely dry, the leaves will crumble when touched. Store them in glass jars with tight fitting lids in a cool, dry place.
Although echinacea is used to fight many different ailments, it is most commonly used to boost the immune system and fight infection. To find out more about making tinctures, salves, syrups, antiseptics, sprays, and many other simple remedies, see Growing and Using Echinacea by Kathleen Brown. This little booklet contains a wealth of information about Echinacea, and costs only $3.95.
There are two ways to brew an herbal tea: Infusion and Decoction. Use the infusion method when preparing a tea from leaves, flowers or seeds. Decoction is the method of choice for roots. For a pleasant cup of tea, most people prefer an infusion of the flowers. Decoctions are very strong.
To make an infusion:
Place 1-2 teaspoons of dried herb or 2-4 teaspoons of fresh herb in a teapot. Cover with 1 cup of boiling water and steep for 15-20 minutes. Strain out the herbs and enjoy.
To make a decoction:
Combine 2 teaspoons of dried root and 1 cup of water in a saucepan. Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for at least 20 minutes and up to 1 hour. Strain out the herb and enjoy.
Below are two tea recipes excerpted from Growing and Using Echinacea by Kathleen Brown. If you can't locate all the ingredients locally, you'll find them readily available on the internet. My favorite source is Glenbrook Farms Herbs & Such.
Virus Fighter Tea
The herbs in this formula all have active antiviral properties and are effective against herpes, shingles, flu, warts, and other viral infections. Ginger is very warming and increases circulation. This tea can be taken internally or applied externally.
1 part echinacea root
1 part ginger root
1 part osha root
1 part boneset leaf
1 part chaparral leaf
1 part St. John's Wort leaf and flower
1 part usnea lichen
Honey and Lemon (optional)
Decoct the roots using the technique described above. Remove from heat and add the remaining herbs. Stir well, cover, and steep another 10 to 20 minutes. Strain, and add honey and lemon if desired.
On-Line Stress Buster Tea
You've been sitting at hour computer for how long? This formula combats the effects of computer radiation exposure, eyestrain, nervous tension, and mental fatigue. Take it to work with you - your brain will thank you.
1 part echinacea root
1 part licorice root
1 part dandelion root and leaf
1 part bladder wrack leaf
1 part eyebright leaf
1 part ginko leaf
1 part goto kola leaf
1 part kelp
1 part oatstraw
Honey and lemon (optional)
Decoct the echinacea, licorice, and dandelion roots using the technique described above. Remove from heat and add the remaining herbs. Stir well, cover the pot, and allow to steep another 10 to 20 minutes. Strain; add honey and lemon if desired.