To most people, echinacea conjures up a herbal remedy for colds and 'flu - a vital boost to the immune system or a piece of harmless quackery. For gardeners, however, Echinacea purpurea is one of the most versatile perennials for the garden.
With handsome, long-lasting flowers, it is sturdy and self-supporting, hardy, easy to grow, undemanding, suitable both for the formal border and the meadow look.
The present high standing of this North American prairie plant is partly due to its being an important element in ‘new naturalism’ gardens. Amenable to being disposed in drifts and rivers, it is a striking sight en masse with its large purple-pink daisy flowers which appear over a long period from early July to September.
Growing to a height of around 100cm (39in), with a spread of 60cm (24in), the slender elegance and robust stems give the plants good wind and weather resistance. Another reason for its popularity is that they also make a particularly stylish cut flower.
The flowers have a distinctive, sweet, fragrance that attracts bees and butterflies to their daisy-like blooms throughout summer. They are followed by attractive, long-lasting seedheads which provide winter food for finches and other birds. The dried seed heads also provide architectural interest in the winter.
The National Garden Bureau (NGB) chose the Echinacea as its perennial of the year for 2014.
Sow seeds in late winter to spring or in late summer to autumn. Echinacea will flower in 11 to 15 weeks so if started indoors early enough, it is possible to get flowers in the first season.
Sow at 20 to 24°C (68 to 75°F), Fill pots or trays with a good seed starting mix (John Innes or similar). Moisten by standing the pots in water, then drain.
Surface sow the seed and press lightly into the soil. Seeds need light to germinate, so do not cover the seeds or use only a light sprinkling of vermiculite. The compost should be kept moist but not wet at all times. Germination may start after only 5 days but may take up to 20 days. Prick out each seedling as it becomes large enough to handle, transplant into 7.5cm (3in) pots or trays to grow on. Plant out in spring into well drained soil. Gradually acclimatise to outdoor conditions for 10 to 15 days before planting out.
In their natural environment, the seeds would germinate after a period of cold, so if there is little or no germination move the tray to a cold area: at around 4°C (39°F) for 2 to 4 weeks. Once you have picked out the remaining seedlings place the tray outdoors in a sheltered area for the winter. Come back to it in spring, more seedlings may await!
Echinacea are generally low maintenance. Grow in deep, well-drained, humus-rich soil ideally in full sun although they can tolerate some shade. Plant in light shade in hot climates. They are tolerant of drought, heat, humidity and poor soil. Avoid over-watering as Echinacea prefer drier conditions once established. No additional fertilising is necessary as heavy fertilisation leads to tall, leggy plants that flop.
These plants are easy to grow although, as with many perennials, they usually take more than one growing season to truly begin to flower. Cut back stems as the blooms fade to encourage further flower production.
Once they are established Echinacea will freely self seed if some deadheads are left intact.
Goldfinch fight for the seeds. If you want to harvest them cover with a net after the seed begins to form. The seed can be difficult to harvest and are easiest after rain or early in the morning when they are wet from dew. The prickly seed heads are soft and pliable, they can be broken in half with your fingers and the seeds picked out.
Dividing every few years will keep them healthy. Divided in spring or autumn, although this should not be too often and care should be taken as they resent a lot of disturbance.
While most home garden Echinacea is a garden ornamental, it can also be grown as a fresh or dried cut flower. Allow flowers to mature on the plant before harvesting. Fresh Echinacea has a short vase life of seven days. Dry by hanging upside down in a well-ventilated, dry area.
Cottage/Informal Garden, Cut Flowers and Flower Arranging, Flowers Borders and Beds, Prairie Planting, Wildflower Gardens or Wildlife Gardens.
Echinacea has nine species in the genus and all are native to the United States. They are related to Rudbeckia and have very much the same look when flowering.
Three different species are used medicinally: E. purpurea, E. pallida, and E. angustifolia. Purpurea is considered more ornamental. Each variety is used to boost the immune system and ward off infections. They have been studied and proven effective against bronchitis, coughs, cold, flu, fever, infections, and sore throat.
Historically, the leaves of these plants were used by Native Americans to treat rheumatism, mumps, and measles and the roots to treat burns and toothaches.
The root was also chewed as a cold remedy and to increase saliva flow to prevent thirst. A tea made from powdered roots and leaves was drunk to treat sore gums and sore throats. Samples of Echinacea were uncovered in campsites from the 1600s, but its use probably goes back much further.
The root is fibrous and close to the surface. It takes 3 to 4 years to develop roots large enough for a substantial harvest.
A fun exercise for the unknowing is to take 3 to 5 seeds and grind them between your front teeth. The resulting sensation will exhibit its pain killing ability.
Echinacea is a genus in the aster family. There are nine species of Echinacea. The family is native to the central and south-eastern parts of the United States.
Some species, for example E. angustifolia, E. purpurea, and E. pallida, are widespread. (These three species are most commonly found in herb products). E.purpurea prefers relatively damp sites in semi-shadow such as the edges of forests and embankments, from lowlands to elevations of 1500 metres.
While other species, including E. tennesseensis (obviously from Tennessee), the rare Appalachian species E. laevigata, and E. paradoxa, are found in narrowly restricted areas. E. tennesseensis and E. laevigata are on the list of endangered plant species.
The yellow-flowered E. paradoxa (the paradox of this "purple coneflower" is that it is yellow) and E. simulata (simulating E. pallida), are both native to the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri.
Other unusual species include E. atrorubens, which occurs in eastern Kansas and Oklahoma, and E. sanguinea, which occurs in Louisiana and eastern Texas, with one population in southwestern Arkansas.
The name Echinacea is derived from the Greek word echino which means spiky or prickly, referring to the plant’s floral centre. Pronounced eck-in-ay-see-uh
The species name 'purpurea' simply means purple coloured. The common name of Coneflower is shared with a number of species including Rudbeckia.
NGB. 2014 Year of the Echinacea:
Echinacea was chosen as the National Garden Bureau’s 2014 Perennial of the Year because of the vast assortment of flower colours and shapes available to today’s gardener but also because they are such a garden staple. The classic flower shape continues to be a favorite in home and public gardens, a ‘tried and true’ classic sure to please any home gardener.
- Additional Information
Family Asteraceae Genus Echinacea Species purpurea Synonym Echinacea purpurea alba, Brauneria purpurea, Rudbeckia purpurea Common Name Purple Cone Flower Other Common Names Black Samson, Purple Daisy Hardiness Hardy Perennial Natural Flower Time Mid summer to late summer Height 60 to 90cm (24 to 36in) Spread 45 to 60cm (18 to 24in) Position Ideally in full sun, will tolerate partial shade Aspect East, West or South facing. Exposed or Sheltered Soil Well-drained/light, Clay/heavy, Chalky/alkaline, Sandy Germination 5 to 20 days at 20 to 24°C (68 to 75°F)