Echinacea: Herb of the Year

From the plains to the garden, the 2002 herb of the year serves as a wellness aid and ornamental perennial.

| August/September 2002

  • 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.
  • The petals of the Tennessee coneflower turn upward rather than drooping like all other echinacea species.
  • 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.

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