Echinacea, or coneflower, is a beautiful staple in temperate and dry climate gardens. Easy to grow and native to the prairies of North America, this plant earns its popularity because of its medicinal uses as well as its arresting color, long flowering time, and ability to attract beneficial predatory insects and garden pollinators, particularly butterflies. Blooms are pink to purple and similar to its cousin, the daisy, in appearance. All parts of the plant are harvested for flower arrangements, medicine, and teas. Wilder species have a large tap root, while cultivated species have more branching roots, making them easier to divide to grow new plants.
Narrow-Leaved Purple Coneflower is a variety of echinacea that grows well in the Western US in regions just east of the Rockies, from Montana to Texas. Today, it’s used in holistic medicine for its antiviral and antibacterial properties. This variety of echinacea will grow 2–5′ tall and produce beautiful purple or pink flowers, which makes it an excellent ornamental plant as well as medicinal herb. If using the root for medicinal purposes, allow your plants at least four seasons to develop before harvesting.
Seed: Germination rate is improved after cold stratification. You can simulate winter by placing damp seeds in the refrigerator for up to 2 months before planting, or sow seeds outside in late fall. Additionally, keep in mind that seeds gathered from plants may not grow true to their parent plant and may take up to 2 years before producing flowers.
Seed Depth: 1/4–1/2″
Space Between Plants: 12–36″
Space Between Rows: 18–24″
Germination Soil Temperature: 65–70°F
Days for Germination: 10–20 days
Sow Indoors: 4–6 weeks before average last frost date.
Sow Outdoors: 4–6 weeks after average last frost date or when the high temperatures are around 70°F.
Vegetative: Propagated by dividing mature plants or taking stem or root cuttings. Time cuttings or division so that transplanting occurs in late spring or early summer.
Grows best in dry temperate climates. Native to North America, it will grow as a hardy perennial in USDA Zones 3–9. Young plants may appreciate some additional wintertime protection in colder zones.
Natural: Full sun. Tolerates partial shade, especially in warmer climates.
Artificial: Grows well under a fluorescent bulb, but switch to an HID lamp like an HPS bulb when you want to promote flowering. Needs at least 12 hours of light daily.
Soil: Prefers a well-drained, loamy soil with high amounts of organic matter. A pH between 6.5 and 7.0 will keep plants healthy and nourished. However, it’s a fairly adaptable plant and will tolerate low-fertility soil.
Soilless: Grow in a mix of coco coir and perlite to provide good drainage.
Hydroponics: Thrives in hydroponics systems.
Aeroponics: Thrives in aeroponic systems. Also good for rooting cuttings.
Water: Requires low to moderate levels of water. Although drought tolerant, plants will be much healthier with occasional irrigation in dry climates. Avoid getting water on leaves and use drip irrigation for efficiency and plant health.
Nutrients: Requires low levels of nutrients. Amend with a sidedressing of compost once per year in the spring.
Foliar: Plants will benefit from a liquid seaweed foliar spray if growth appears very slow, but it’s not usually needed.
Pruning: Deadhead plants to extend flowering time and prevent reseeding. Leave some later flowers to attract birds throughout the fall and winter, but only if you’re OK with a bunch of new plants sprouting up in the spring. If you want to delay flowering until fall, prune back half of the growth in early summer. Do this with some plants, and leave others to create a longer blooming period in your garden.
Mulching: Use mulch to maintain soil moisture and suppress weeds.
Deficiency(s): A nitrogen deficiency can result in reduction of essential oils. Potassium and phosphorus are necessary for root and flower development.
Rotation: Echinacea will reseed itself and grow in the same area for several years. If you find that you are having disease problems, rotate your echinacea to a new area of the garden after 3–4 years.
Companions: Grows well with bee balm, sage, and mint.
Harvest: Leaves and flowers can be taken at any time for their medicinal uses. Bloom time is usually in summer or fall, and plants grown from seed make take up to 2 years to produce. If growing for the root, dig up roots in the fall of the plant’s second or third year, after a few frosts. Top growth should be removed, and roots should be washed and trimmed before drying.
Storage: Fresh leaves and flowers can be stored for 3–4 days in the refrigerator. Keep dried roots in a cool, dark area in a container that allows for air flow. Dried leaves and plant matter should be kept in an airtight container out of direct light.
History: This variety of echinacea was used extensively by Native Americans of the Great Plains as medicine for treating poisonous bites from snakes and insects and as a mild pain killer.
Fun Fact: Consuming this plant orally can cause the tongue and mouth to tingle and even go numb, but fear not! The effects are temporary and aren’t indicative of there being anything foul afoot.
Preserve: Plants are commonly dried for later use. Make a tincture of echinacea by soaking dried leaves and flowers in high proof grain alcohol. Leave it for about a week in the sun, then 6 to 12 weeks in a dark place. Strain to remove the flower parts and use within 2 years. You can also make an oil infusion using fresh herbs and a neutral tasting vegetable oil. Infuse for 3–4 weeks before straining. This type of infusion will last for 3–4 months.
Prepare: Echinacea is commonly consumed as a tea, using either fresh or dried leaves, petals, stems, roots, and cones. Steep for up to 20 minutes to get the full benefit.
Medicinal: Native Americans have prized this flowering plant for its medicinal uses for centuries. These include the treatment of sore throats, urinary disorders, cough, mouth sores, toothaches, skin wounds, and insect bites. Today, it’s commonly used for treating or preventing colds and flu and for stimulating the immune system although the studies regarding these claims vary. Echinacea is also being investigated for antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and purifying properties.
Warnings: As with all herbs, use caution and consult with a medical professional when taking echinacea in medicinal amounts, particularly if you are taking other herbs, supplements, or medicines, particularly those which also affect the immune system. Recent organ transplant recipients, as well as anyone with tuberculosis, leukemia, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, HIV or AIDS, or liver disorders should not take echinacea. Allergic reactions are possible as well. Side effects can include rash, the triggering of asthma attacks, or dizziness.
Unfortunately, its popularity has led to some shady manufacturing practices: a study conducted found that only 4 of 11 store-bought brands actually contained the species and amounts of echinacea on the label, and 10% had no echinacea in them at all!
Keep yourself feeling great all winter with this Echinacea-Elderberry Syrup recipe.