Echinacea is a plant familiar to many, gardeners and non gardeners alike. Those that do not garden are more this flower's ability to show off, hybridists have crossed Echinacea species bringing colors of yellow, orange, whites and purple
with this plant's reputation and ability to strengthen our immune systems against seasonal colds. Gardeners recognize not only its medicinal value, but also the fact that Echinacea is a native to the prairie states and a wonderful addition to the perennial bed.
Echinacea purpurea, the most familiar of the species, is known for its bright purple-pink flowers and tall, brown, coned center-hence the nickname Coneflower. In the wild, flowers can bloom at 3-4', the petals pulling back from the cone, giving an identifiable "droop" to the flower. For many, those droopy petals do not create the flower "show" most gardeners desire. It did not take long for breeders to get busy and cross pollinate, select and introduce coneflower varieties whose petals remain outstretched.
In addition to fine tuning and muted blends of these to the nursery shelf. Gardeners may choose varieties that grow only half the height, bear shorter cones, in fact some cones have been completely replaced with a fluffy center of short, blunt petals. Purists and native plant enthusiasts glancing at a page of Echinacea varieties see selections that are reminiscent of garden mums rather than wild flowers. Thankfully there is room in the world for both types of gardeners!
All of my adult life I have foreseen the demise of modern society; to some that's a vision of a glass half full. Anyhow that is why I first took an interest in planting medicinal plants in my garden. Many still debate if it is E. purpurea or E. angustifolia that bear the compounds worthy of medicinal use. Digging deeper in the books I found both to be Plains natives, but also found two other species-
E. paradoxa, an Ozark native with thinner, yellow petals and smooth, lance-shaped leaves and E. tennesseenisis a shorter, version of E. purpurea with petals perpendicular to a greenish-pink cone, now endangered in the wild.
I envisioned a planting with all four varieties intermixed for the pale flowers of E. angustifolia would bloom the perfect transition color between
E. purpurea's bold and E. paradoxa's pastel tones. The planting has yet to be a success for honestly, I neglected to give the plants the water they needed; lesson: native does not necessarily mean drought tolerant.
All Echinacea likes full sun, good drainage and moderate to regular water. Sometimes this balance is hard to achieve in heavy clay soil. Begin by double digging the soil in the area to be planted. Amend with compost, trace minerals and a sprinkle of lime. The extra shovel's depth will help keep the crowns of the plants from rotting during a wet winter. In addition the roots (the part of the plant used medicinally) will have an easier time developing. The species of wild coneflower is easy to grow from seed in soil that has reached 70°F. Recent introductions rarely produce seed and can be purchased in pots for transplanting.
The Native Americans used Echinacea for poisonous insect and snake bites and to alleviate burns. Some say it was used to desensitize the hands and feet to hold or walk on hot coals. Fortunately, a summer of blistered feet from hot El Paso sidewalks was enough to keep me from ever trying such foolish feats. However, ingesting
home grown herbs can be just as foolish if one has no experience or formal education on the matter.
It was not until the 19th century that herbalists began acknowledging Echinacea's support to the human immune system and its ability to rid the blood and lymph systems of impurities; success requires first proper identification and purity of the plant (and root) being harvested. I once new a man who, as he learned of medicinal herbs began experimenting and "treating" all sorts of self-diagnosed ailments; be aware, just as pharmaceuticals have side effects and create mysterious symptoms, so can herbs.
Traditionally roots are harvested after the third hard frost and all foliage has died back to the ground. Some sources specify only harvesting 3-4 year old roots and no older than 4 year-old roots (with no explanation as to why). Reputable suppliers grow and harvest medicinal herbs organically in beds where no other roots can accidentally be intermixed. I'm all for planting the species to maintain a healthy gene pool, but pray readers execute wisdom in the use of all ingested plants.