August 2011
The Herb Farm

Echinacea and All Its Benefits

There are so many herbs I grow here on the farm for values other than medicinal that sometimes I lose track of what their purposes actually are…. Or do I?

Perhaps there’s more to medicinal than meets the dictionary. I believe medicine is more than a pill we take or a salve we buy at the local drug store. Have you even looked up the cosmopolitan or stylish definition of medicine? When I read stuff like that, it really gets me going! Somebody is tainting the water-trough here! Medicine is not just treating an ailment with a chemical prescription! It is all about what heals or soothes the mind, body and spirit with whatever it takes!

Now that you understand where my beginnings are, let us better try to understand the herb Echinacea and all its medicinal benefits.

First, I’m going to list some relatives of this fine herb in order to give you an idea of the size of its family, ‘Asteraceae.’ What to you think of when you hear that family name? Duh! Asters? Daisies?

Here is a very brief list of its cousins: dahlia, coreopsis, marigold, sunflower (Helianthus sp.), smallanthus, chrysanthemum, osteospermum, brachyscome and, of course, zinnia.

 

Above, this purple hybrid is the easiest of the Echinaceas to propagate from seed and sometimes the flowers produce a second set of petals pointed up like the ‘Double-Decker’ cultivar. Below, Echinacea Firebird is one of three red ones growing in my cut flower garden.

 

As you can see, Echinacea is in good company.

Echinacea is a genus of herbaceous perennials native to North America. It gets its name from the Greek word, ‘echinos’ which means ‘hedgehog.’ Apparently, the spines of the center of the flower resemble the spines on a riled hedgehog. Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea), commonly called coneflowers or purple coneflowers, grow naturally from Ontario south to Florida and from Connecticut west to Colorado. They are endangered in Florida and are presumed to be extirpated in Michigan, according to the USDA. The natural plants (non-hybridized) grow well in full-sun to partial-shade and are considered to be hardy from USDA zones 2a to 10b.

Native Americans have used Echinacea for centuries as a general treatment for ‘what ails you.’ Over the past 300+ years, Echinacea has been used to treat ailments like anthrax, blood poisoning, diphtheria, cough, fever, malaria, sore throat, syphilis, snakebite and the common cold. Echinacea is used as an immune system fortifier and is widely believed to prevent or ease painful or otherwise unpleasant symptoms caused by infections.

As far as the other valuable medicines attributed to these plants, Echinacea are beautiful. Mother Nature’s design of coneflowers is magnificent. From the way the petals gently slope away from the center to equal spacing and intense colors of the spiny cone, they are pleasing to the eye.

Echinacea ‘Tomato Soup’ is a great performer and sports intense red/orange blooms.

 

Coneflowers make excellent cut flowers, too. Lasting five to seven days in a vase or fresh water, coneflowers are an excellent choice in arrangements or as a stands-alone stem. Take a bouquet to a friend or neighbor and see how it brightens up their day (more good medicine).

Mostly what I have growing here on the farm are the native species. However, I have several hybrids that bring me joy as I watch them grow and mature. There are two or three red ones, a couple of the purple ‘Double-Decker’ ones and my favorite orange one, ‘Tomato Soup.’ A friend recently gave me two of his Terra-Nova hybrids in the ‘Big Sky’ series. They are ‘Harvest Moon’ and ‘Sunrise.’ These are pale-yellow and creamy-white respectively. I also have a ‘Magnus’ or two and a few ‘White Swan’ varieties planted here and there.

 

Every garden needs something pure white to make the other colors pop. ‘White Swan’ is another great performer.

Echinacea is easy to cultivate from seed and from herbaceous divisions. Take root cuttings in the fall before the plants go into cool-weather dormancy. Harvest seeds in the fall as well. The seeds collected in the fall will be far more viable than seeds taken in the summer. Allow seed heads to dry on the plant before harvesting. Place the seeds into a paper bag and allow to dry further in a cool, dry place for about a month. If you plan to sow the seeds indoors in the spring, stratify them at 34-40°F (refrigerator is what I use) for a minimum of 90 days. Seeds may be directly sown in the fall.

For starting seed indoors, I have read a couple of methods that seem to work well. One author recommended sowing the seed, then covering them with an eighth-inch of soil. Another said they need light to germinate, so they should not be covered. Both methods work. Personally, I sow my seed in 72-cell plug flats and lightly cover them with a dusting of medium or coarse vermiculite. Sow seed indoors in early January for finished plants by late May. Bottom heat of 70-75°F speeds germination. They germinate in 10-30 days.

   

Left, Echinacea ‘Sunrise’ is one of the ‘Big Sky’ series. Right, ‘Harvest Moon’ is another one of the ‘Big Sky’ cultivars.

Echinacea attracts butterflies and honeybees, and that’s good medicine for your garden! Also, be sure to leave a few seed heads on the plants in the fall. The American Goldfinches love them and you’ll enjoy watching the birds in the winter. It’s just another way to relax and enjoy your garden while lowering your stress level by seeing more of nature’s wonders in your own yard.

Echinacea is good medicine.

Thanks for reading!

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