Echinacea, popularly known as coneflower, has created a sensation among those who like to dabble in herbal healing. 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 In Using Echinacea, 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 organic fertilizer. 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.
- 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.
- Pull the root clump apart or cut it apart with a sharp knife. Each division should have its own roots and stems.
- Plant each clump in soil that has been amended with compost and a balanced fertilizer.
- Water regularly to keep the soil moist but not soggy until you see signs of new growth.