Echinacea Benefits the Garden and the Gardener

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Moon echinacea

I like to grow flowering herbs in the front row of my garden, so their colors and fragrances cannot be missed by people or pollinating insects. One of my favorites is Echinacea purpurea, commonly called purple coneflower in the nursery trade. Native to the Midwestern US, purple coneflower has a long history of use as a medicinal herb, and is an invaluable plant in beds designed to attract beneficial life forms. A 2006 study from the University of Saskatchewan showed that echinacea nectar contains glucose, fructose and sucrose – a pleasing mix of sugars to generalist pollinators like bees, butterflies and moths. When the protein-rich seeds ripen, they are eagerly gathered by finches and other seed-eating birds.

A winter-hardy perennial, echinacea grows well in most climates when given a sunny, well-drained site. You will get the best seed production by growing three plants together, which collectively produce enough flowers to put on an eye-catching show as well. Need cut flowers? When purple coneflower blossoms are gathered just as the drooping petals unfurl, they will last up to a week in a vase.

How to Grow Echinacea in Your Garden

Echinacea is easily grown from seed started indoors in late winter, or you can start with purchased plants. Seed of several new varieties that bloom in hot shades of yellow and orange can be quite pricey, for example the award-winning new 'Cheyenne Spirit' variety. To get top germination, the breeder says to press seeds into damp seed starting mix and maintain at 65 to 70°F (18 to 21°C) for 10 to 15 days, the time needed for germination. Seeds must be started before January 25 if they are to bloom their first year.

Echinacea

Many of the newer non-purple coneflowers are seed sterile, and nothing is known about their medicinal qualities, which are likely to differ from the species because they involve interspecies hybrids with E. paradoxa. All coneflowers develop multiple crowns as the season progresses, and two-year-old plants in particular can be propagated by digging and dividing rooted crowns in either spring or fall. If you want to gather roots for use in medicinal preparations, you have an excellent reason to dig and divide your old-fashioned purple coneflowers in early fall.

Making Echinacea Tincture

When I have enough crowns to spare, I harvest two to three well-rooted plants and prepare a concentrated echinacea tincture. First I set aside a few nice leaves and dry them. Then I scrub the knotty little roots and partially dry them, too. To make a tincture, I finely chop one-half cup of Echinacea roots and leaves, place it in a small jar, and cover it with 100-proof vodka. After a good shake, the jar goes into a dark cabinet, where it is shaken daily. After three weeks, I filter the echinacea tincture through a coffee filter and pour it into a dark bottle, kept in a cool cabinet.

Preparing echinacea tincture

At our house, we start taking teaspoon doses of echinacea tincture straight or in warm tea whenever colds or other viruses get too close for comfort, then stop taking it when we and the people around us are well. It is my belief that the echinacea tincture revs up the immune system, keeping it at high alert, though hard science has failed to fully validate my way of thinking. In one of the most recent studies, from the University of Wisconsin, taking echinacea in pill form had little if any impact on the common cold.

Echinacea flowers

I have no problem with this, because pills (that must release their compounds amidst hostile stomach acids) are less useful than tinctures that the body begins absorbing in the mouth. And then there is the placebo effect, which is certainly part of echinacea’s mystique. Placebo, from the Latin "I please" can be potent medicine in that it can unlock the brain’s potential to restore health. Health care practitioners cannot ethically use placebo medicines because doing so involves the suspension of truth. But when we self-prescribe herbal medicines like echinacea because we believe in their worth, the belief can be as potent as the medicine itself.

Even if it had no medicinal properties, I would grow echinacea because of its high status among bees and butterflies. I also like the way purple coneflowers stay where you plant them, making them one of the best behaved members of my garden’s front row lineup. Visually and practically, echinacea benefits both the garden and the gardener.

By Barbara Pleasant

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Comments

 
"I have been looking for some other plants to add to my allotment borders and Echinacea sounds perfect. I also grow Comfrey in the borders and hope to make some herbal remedies from their roots as well. "
nathan,UK on Friday 21 September 2012
"A very honest and transparent appraisal of its lack of medical effectiveness but enduring appeal. Good for you. "
Jeuan David Jones on Friday 21 September 2012
"An excellent article thank you I have tried a number of times to grow purple Echinacea but with no success I will try again – bringing the sown seeds indoors to germinate. we swear by the tincture - can't wait to make my own! Peta in France "
peta from France on Friday 21 September 2012
"You're touting its "placebo" effects? Really? It's a pretty flower, but I'm not sure I'd bother making a tincture."
AnnInFL on Friday 21 September 2012
"Question about the tincture making... you say you select "few nice leaves and dry them", but the photo shows the root and in my mind.. the petals. So when you say leaves, are you referring to green leaves or the purple petals? I'd love to do my own tinctures next year. Thanks."
Debbie in Oregon on Saturday 22 September 2012
"Debbie, the leaves are already in the jar in the photo, and the flower is there to clearly identify the tincture. I don't include flower parts or stems -- only leaves and roots from purple coneflower. Good luck!"
Barbara Pleasant on Sunday 23 September 2012
"I really enjoyed this post -- lovely, clear writing and good info. I've grown purple coneflowers before, but this article has reminded me to bring some back to the garden next year. Something to look forward to for next Spring as things gradually winter down here in the Maritimes."
Pansy on Sunday 30 September 2012
"I have heard from gardening gurus that it is best the first year echinacea blossoms are removed as it gives the roots more time and energy to grow as the first year roots are not strong enough and often do not make it through to the second year."
Norma Sweet on Saturday 18 February 2017
"Norma, you are right in that plants double in size during their first year, but I let young plants bloom if that is what they are determined to do. Once they settle in, echinaceas are very vigorous plants!"
Barbara Pleasant on Tuesday 2 May 2017

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