Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea)
Purple Coneflower, Sampson Root, American Coneflower, Hedgehog, Indian Head, Kansas Snakeroot, Scurvy Root, Snakeroot, Black Susans, Elk Root
About This Plant
The stately, statuesque Echinacea plant with its slender elegance and robust stems make it a favorite in any garden. Its well-known medicinal uses make it extra popular. Echinacea is a cold and heat-hardy perennial in the Asteraceae family grown in USDA zones 3-9. It is resilient to wind and weather. It grows three to four feet tall and spreads up to two feet wide. There are nine species of Echinacea and over 50 cultivated hybrids. E. purpurea tends to be the easiest to grow and boasts high yields. It has broader leaves than the other species and flower petals of a deeper purplish-pink. It reseeds readily.
Echinacea flowers are daisy-like in appearance and bloom from Summer into Autumn. Their color ranges from a rich purple to lavender to pink. Their petals generally point downward and the seed cone in the middle tapers upwards. Their distinctive, sweet fragrance attracts bees and butterflies. The fresh-cut flowers have a vase life of seven days.
A single flower forms on each of the tall stems. Plants grow several unbranched stems each. Both the stems and leaves are rough and significantly hairy. The leaves are ovate-lanceolate with serrate edges and are slightly heart-shaped at the base.
Echinacea plants form long, tapering slightly spiraling fibrous taproots. They have a faint aromatic smell and a sweetish taste that leaves a tingling sensation in the mouth.
The seedhead at the center of the flowers rises in a prickly cone, tipped in orange, earning it one common name of “Hedgehog”. The seeds are four-sided achenes.
Echinacea is a clumping plant. A single plant tends to get larger, but it will not overtake a garden via roots or rhizomes. In nature, it prefers damp sites with semi-shade such as forest edges and embankments. It grows from lowlands to elevations of about 5,000 feet. It can be found growing on wild prairies and open woodlands. Its native habitat extends eastward through the Great Plains from northeast Texas to Missouri and Michigan. Its wild populations are dwindling due to loss of habitat and overharvesting and it is considered endangered. Responsible herbalists grow their own and fortunately, Echinacea is well adapted to the garden.
Echinacea’s name comes from the Greek word echino, meaning spiky which is used to describe the nature of a hedgehog or sea urchin, or, in the case of Echinacea, describes the bristly scales of the dried seed head. Purpurea means purple.
Insects and deer do not bother Echinacea. Gophers and moles, however, like to eat the roots. Goldfinches love the seed and can clear out all of the seedheads in a few days.
Echinacea is still a widely used medicinal plant among the Plains natives. The Ute associated the plant with Elk and called it “Elk Root”. It is said that wounded Elk seek the plant out as medicine. Early colonial settlers would add Echinacea to the feed of cows and horses that were sick. The first Echinacea preparation to appear on the market was Meyers Blood Purifier in 1880.
Echinacea can be sown directly outdoors in late Winter to Spring, or in late Summer to Autumn. The seeds should be surface sown and pressed lightly into the soil. Keep the soils moist, but not wet, at all times. Germination takes between 5 and 20 days. If sowing indoors, seeds will benefit from a period of cold stratification prior to planting. Echinacea can bloom as early as 11 to 15 weeks after sowing so it is possible to have blossoms the first year if seeds are planted early enough. Otherwise, it will bloom its second season.
Echinacea can also be propagated by dividing the crowns. This approach results in a stronger young plant that is much less tedious to nurture than a seedling. Roots can be harvested when the leaves begin to turn brown and the plant is approaching dormancy. Wash the roots and remove most for use. Then, using your hands, carefully divide the crown into “plantlets” and replant them as soon as possible. Don’t allow them to dry out. If they cannot be planted immediately, dunk them in water and keep them in a sealed plastic bag in a cool and shady space until planted. Make sure the roots are well spread out when replanting. These plantlets can also be grown in flats in a greenhouse for the Winter and replanted the following Spring to ensure the development of their root systems.
Echinacea seedlings should be planted out in the Spring. Acclimate seedlings gradually to the outdoors for 10 to 15 days before planting out. Space plants with one foot between them and two feet between the rows. Water them regularly until established. Young seedlings are easily overwhelmed by weeds, so keep weeded.
Echinacea prefers to grow in full sun but will tolerate partial shade. It needs well-drained soil, and once established, normally does fine with only natural rainfall for its watering needs. Until it is established, it may need some protection from extreme winds and hot direct sunlight. Keep weeded and space appropriately to ensure good air movement between plants. Echinacea looks striking when grown in masses.
No fertilization is needed with Echinacea. Heavy fertilization actually leads to tall, leggy plants that tend to flop over. It does benefit from a nice mulching in Winter. Old foliage can be removed and discarded after a hard frost in Fall. Echinacea needs to be divided every few years to remain healthy. Don’t do it more often so as they do not like too many disturbances.
The ariel portions of Echinacea can be harvested in their third year. It is best to harvest right after the flowers begin to bloom as this is when the medicine is most potent. You can cut each stem at the first set of leaves. Rinse and hang the stems upside down to dry or place them on a screen. If hanging the plants, tie a bag around the tops as the petals will droop and fall as they dry. It takes three to four years for the roots to reach a harvestable size. Roots can be harvested in the late Fall after the flowers have gone to seed and after a couple of frosts. Harvesting the roots can be done in conjunction with thinning the plants. Cut just a portion of the roots so that some remain and the plants will still grow back in the Spring. Roots can be washed, then cut into small ½” cubes, laid on a screen in a well-ventilated, dry area out of direct sunlight. The root portions should dry in several days.
Echinacea seeds are typically harvested during the Fall of the second year. The plants produce lots of seeds but must be harvested before the birds get to them. The seeds should be plump and ripe. Choose seeds from the largest and most vital plants. Stop watering the plants as the seeds begin to mature. Excessive watering is not needed at this point and may actually damage the seed crop. Snip the cone-heads off and put them in buckets. If the seeds are still a little green, the cones can be dried for a few days in the sun. The seedheads can be broken apart by hand. One technique for separating the chaff from the seed is to pour your collected seed along an edge of a flannel sheet. Lift that edge of the sheet and roll the seed to the other side where your partner is waiting to funnel it into a bowl.
- Echinacea looks fantastic in a cottage or informal garden, flower borders and beds, prairie plantings, and wildflower gardens
- It is a great addition to fruit tree guild plantings
- Flower arrangments
Echinacea is not considered a culinary herb, though it is edible. It can be added to your Winter wellness tea or the petals can be added to salads or used to decorate cakes and confections.
Echinacea is heralded as the champion of immunostimulant herbs. It is one of the most well-studied medicinal herbs. The three species of Echinacea used medicinally are E. purpurea, E. pallida, and E. agustofolia. While it does not prevent colds or flu, there is some scientific evidence that it can reduce the symptoms of either if started at the first onset of symptoms and continued for 7-10 days.
Echinacea has long been used for upper respiratory infections. It has also been used to address other types of infections, venomous bites and stings, urinary tract infections, and to promote lymphatic drainage. It is useful (taken both internally and externally) for skin afflictions such as boils, acne, and abscesses. It can assist with rattlesnake bites (while en route to a hospital) by inhibiting hyaluronidase, the poison found in the bites – a strong tincture is often carried by outdoor enthusiasts for this purpose. Echinacea also contains chemicals that attack yeast and other kinds of fungi directly.
Echinacea was listed in the U.S. National Formulary from 1926-1950. Its use fell out of favor in the U.S. with the discovery of antibiotics. The way Echinacea works is by increasing phagocytosis which is an immune response that includes the engulfing and destruction of microorganisms as well as old cells and cellular debris. Phagocytosis is a major way in which the body’s immune system removes various pathogens from the body. Echinacea also stimulates the immune system by increasing T-cell count. In other words, Echinacea helps your body’s immune system kick into gear so it can do its job of keeping you healthy.
If you bite into fresh Echinacea root or taste a potent Echinacea product, you’ll experience a “zing”. Echinacea is stimulating by nature. It stimulates saliva, it stimulates immune function, and it promotes the flow of lymph. This “zing” makes it great for relieving sore throats and tooth infections.
Echinacea is considered cool and dry. It is used for signs of heat, most notably infections. Since it stimulates body secretions, it is also drying. Echinacea is generally used in smaller doses frequently, such as every hour or two. It is also recommended that people take breaks from using Echinacea because it loses its potency if taken for too long – the general recommendation is two weeks on and two weeks off.
The entire plant is used medicinally, though the strongest medicine is contained in the roots. Flowers, leaves, and stems are used in infusions. The roots can be decocted. The roots are often tinctured. Many herbalists prefer freshly tinctured roots as opposed to dried root tinctures. The medicinal components of Echinacea are alcohol soluble and tinctures are generally more potent than teas.
Echinacea may adversely affect people with autoimmune conditions or asthma or AIDS. Those with allergies to other members of the Asteraceae family, such as Ragweed, should use caution with Echinacea.
There are nine species of Echinacea and they are all native to the central and south-eastern parts of the U.S.