Echinacea: Herb of the Year

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E. purpurea, or purple coneflower, is excellent as an ornamental plant. It is hardy in Zones 3 to 9. It tolerates summer heat and humidity.
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The petals of the Tennessee coneflower turn upward rather than drooping like all other echinacea species.
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Coneflowers require some deadheading, but you’ll enjoy them more if you cut them and arrange them.

The fan-like rays of echinacea flowers seem to celebrate the wellness locked inside their roots. It was the wellness aspect of the plant of which I first learned; however, I’ll never forget my initial experience with the actual flowers. I had, of course, seen them in photographs, but I had no idea that the colors, texture, and apparent sense of detail with which they were created could be so much more poignant in real life. I was struck with a sense of awe, and–like a curious child–I just had to touch the prickly centers.

Not only are the echinaceas capable of catching the human eye and encouraging passers by to pause and enjoy their beauty, many a fleeting butterfly or buzzing bee can be found prancing around the coneflowers for hours.

This perennial herb gets its name from the rusty-orange, prickly center that might remind you of a sea urchin or hedgehog–from the Greek echinos. But these bright summer bloomers have a history best known by North American natives of the plains. And aside from echinacea’s suggested medicinal uses, the daisy relative and member of the Compositae (Asteraceae) family is an attractive addition to any garden.

Although E. angustifolia, E. pallida, and E. purpurea are most widely known for their medicinal use, the other coneflowers are useful as well. All varieties are nice in fresh flower arrangements, especially with the variety in their color and petals. Add yellow coneflower (E. paradoxa), White Swan (E. purpurea ‘White Swan’), and Tennessee coneflower (E. tennesseensis) to a bouquet of fresh-cut sage, hollyhocks, and calendula for a refreshing reminder of the benefits of the summer heat. Plunge cut flowers into a vase of tepid water overnight before arranging them. Some gardeners also add preservatives such as aspirin, sugar, charcoal, or a few pennies to make the blooms last longer.

When the petals have all fallen from the centers of your echinacea flowers, use these dried cones–also called paleae–in dried arrangements just as they are, or painted silver or gold.

In the garden

Echinacea’s flowers are welcome additions to wildflower gardens, filling empty spaces that might otherwise look weeded and unkempt. They also serve well as border plants on their own or surrounded by a variety of other colorful summer blooms. Echinacea plants prefer fertile, well-drained soil and several species thrive in heat. In its natural habitat, E. purpurea is likely to be found near springs and other naturally occurring small water supplies, as it likes moist soil and prefers shade. E. angustifolia, E. pallida, and E. paradoxa are generally dry and can appreciate garden areas that don’t receive regular watering.

Each of the species in this North American native genus vary in height as much as they do in color. Of the nine species, some have tall, upstanding stems that may grow 3 to 4 feet high, such as E. pallida and many purpureas; yellow coneflower (E. paradoxa) often grows to more than 4 feet. Others, such as E. purpurea ‘Kim’s Kneehigh’, however, prove to be less proud and stately as they roam the ground at a height of 6 to 12 inches. Slightly taller but still of the shorter versions, E. angustifolia varies in height from 6 inches to 2 feet. And the federally listed-as-endangered Tennessee coneflower (E. tennesseensis) stands somewhere in the middle, ranging from 2 to 3 feet in height.

Propagation and cultivation

Echinacea grows well in limestone-based or rocky sites. In its wild habitat, it appears to thrive in soils with a pH of 6 to 8. E. purpurea is the easiest of the lot to grow from seed. All others are slow to develop and if you choose to add them to your garden, you should consider ordering the plants. Established plants should thrive with little care, although not all cultivars will bloom in their first year in the garden. If grown from seed, most echinaceas won’t flower until their second or third year.

It’s important to divide and transplant the roots of echinacea plants every three or four years. This allows them room to flourish. In late fall or early spring, dig up roots, prune back foliage and stems, and separate the roots into portions. Replant the divided roots and enjoy a new thriving crop in the years to come.

History and medicine

Native Americans, including members of the Cheyenne, Commanche, Crow, Omaha, Ponca, and perhaps other tribes, used the fresh root, root juice, or an infusion made from the plant for toothaches and sore gums. Echinacea was widely available throughout the northern and central plains in which many of these tribes lived. It has been suggested that echinacea was the most widely used herb by the Native Americans, who also used the plant for colds and snakebites.

And if you think that echinacea has just become popular to modern use in the last few years, think again. Eclectic doctors–those employing botanical medicine in their practices–brought echinacea to the forefront of botanical medicine as early as 1845. And in 1897, the first chemical makeup reports of E. angustifolia were published by John Uri Lloyd. This was just the first of many reports and studies of echinacea. Not everyone thought highly, however, of this so-called plant remedy. Although it was included in the United States National Formulary from 1916 to 1950, many doctors considered it a “quack remedy.”

Today, you’re likely to find echinacea in several forms at your local health-food store. Various studies have shown that juice pressed from the roots of fresh, flowering E. purpurea decreases the duration of some cold or flu-like symptoms. Although this herb is helpful as a preventive aid, echinacea isn’t suggested for long-term use as the herb’s ability to prevent infections diminishes when it is taken continuously.

Cautions: Avoid using echinacea if you have an autoimmune disease such as multiple sclerosis or are using immune-suppressant drugs. As with any herb or supplement use, consult your health-care provider for possible herb-drug interactions and if adverse conditions develop or worsen.

Dawna Edwards is a flower lover and editor of The Herb Companion. Her favorite echinacea cultivar is E. purpurea ‘Bright Star’.

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