When you think of echinacea, two things likely come to mind:
- That stuff your mom's always trying to get you to take to boost your immune system
- Daisy-like purple flowers that look like they partied a bit too hard the night before
Ok, maybe three things:
- How do you freaking say "echinacea"?
Echinacea, pronounced "eh-kin-asia," is the genus name for nine species in the Asteraceae family. These notorious nine are commonly referred to as coneflowers, named for the flower's domed centers and downward-pointing petals. If you ask us, echinacea flowers look more like colorful badminton shuttlecocks than cones.
Echinacea plants are sometimes called "hedge coneflowers," "American coneflowers" or when referring to the most popular color, "purple echinacea."
Whatever you think they look like, or whatever you choose to call them, coneflowers are fair game for your garden plant selection and an asset to your herbal medicine cabinet. Friendly bugs love them, and we're pretty sure you will too. And guess what? Don't let the botanical name Echinacea purpurea fool you; purple isn't the only color in which coneflowers bloom.
Coneflower in the Garden
The echinacea genus is native to the eastern United States and like most wildflowers, it's a hardy and adaptable plant. Ideal conditions enhance bloom displays and foliage vigor but left to its own devices, coneflowers can dress up neglected gardens or add color to xeriscapes.
You don't have to grow coneflower for any other purpose than to dress up your garden, but in addition to its beauty and its reputation as a medicinal herb, growing coneflower from seed attracts beneficial insects such as predatory wasps and butterflies. Once in a while, a hummingbird might come to visit.
When it goes to seed, small songbirds love to raid the central cones, and when it's in full flower, honeybees go nuts.
In fact, beekeepers love to set their hives near commercial echinacea fields because raw honey—which is scientifically proven to contain naturally antimicrobial properties—increases its market value when it can be labeled as echinacea honey. Even if there are no studies proving the medicinal benefits of echinacea honey (specifically) on human health, honey connoisseurs place echinacea honey high on their lists of flavor favorites.
USDA Hardiness Zones: Coneflowers are herbaceous perennials in zones 3 to 8.
Sunlight Preferences: Echinacea grows well in partial shade or in full sun. In the hottest areas, afternoon shade will prevent the flowers from fading and the leaves from "scorching.”
Moisture Requirements: Consistent moisture helps the entire plant retain its vigor. Coneflowers won't be as spectacular in drought-prone areas, but it will hold its own in hot, dry soil if it gets a break from intense sunlight.
Soil Requirements: Coneflowers don't require rich soils, but a little compost worked into the planting area will help them grow best. It doesn't handle soggy, poorly-drained soil.
Plant Height: Up to 4.5' tall.
Plant Width: Up to 1.5' wide.
Flowers: Three-inch wide compound flowers resemble lazy daisies, and in most species, the petals droop downwards from the center disk—or, in the case of E. purpurea, the "dome." As with all daisy relatives, the center disk is a cluster of tiny flowers, and each petal "ray" is a flower on its own.
Each upright stem may branch out to hold several flowers.
The center of a coneflower can be the most colorful part of the plant. The central disks often take on a fiery orange appearance, "burning" from a brown or green base. Ray colors may include dark or light purple, magenta, pink, yellow, or white. Hybridized varieties include bi-color petals.
Bloom Period: Coneflowers bloom mid-summer through early fall, and deadheading will encourage consistent and prolonged flowering.
Foliage: Leaves are a medium to dark green. Long, narrow, sword-like basal leaves can be as long as 8", and the alternating leaves on the flower stems grow as long as 4".
Growth Habit: Upright, clumping. The flowers grow on long, sparsely-leaved stems.
Maturity Period: Echinacea plants grown from seed bloom in their second year of growth and thrive for 3 to 4 years.
Pests & Diseases: Healthy coneflowers are usually resilient to pests and diseases, but drought-affected leaves open the door for Japanese beetles. These critters will make your flowers and leaves look like they'd been attacked by a shotgun-wielding hillbilly garden fairy.
Hold onto your hooch, and check out this link to plan a counter-assault.
Maintenance: If you want to tidy up your garden at the end of the season, cut your coneflower plants down to just above ground level. Early in the season, mature coneflowers might be cut back by half to encourage a fuller-appearance, or to prolong the start of the bloom period.
While coneflowers aren't invasive, they do self-seed rather easily. If you don't want them to naturalize (and if you want to encourage fresh new flowers) diligently deadhead spent blooms.
Mature, 3 to 4-year-old plants should be divided at their bases if the outside stems start to droop, or "lodge."
Harvesting: Coneflower's radial petals quickly wilt when the stems are harvested, but the seed heads make interesting arrangement accents. This is the part of the plant valued for its medicinal purposes; dry the entire stem and flower, inverted, in an airy, warm spot and then keep the centers in an airtight container. Store your echinacea in a cool, dark cupboard, and only crush them when you're ready to use them.
Growing Coneflower from Seed
Coneflowers aren't difficult to germinate. Like most plants that easily self-seed, you can scatter them onto damp soil on a wind-free day. To make sure you get the most value from your seeds and ensure the highest germination rates, you'll want to take a few basic steps.
(Not that we mind selling you more coneflower seeds than you really need. We just want you to be happy with what you've got!)
Seed Treatment: Coneflower seeds benefit from 8 to 12 weeks of cold stratification prior to planting.
When to Plant: Scatter seeds in late fall, direct sow early spring or start indoors (after cold stratification) 6 to 8 weeks prior to the last spring frost.
Indoor Planting Tips: Coneflower roots are susceptible to transplant shock, so we recommend starting them in peat pots.
Seed Depth: No more than 1/8" deep. Coneflower seeds require sunlight to germinate.
Seed Spacing: Thin or plant 12" to 18" apart.
Days to Germination: 7 to 30; around 14 days under ideal conditions (65°F-70°F).
Echinacea in Herbal Medicine
Coneflower is almost always referred to by its genus name when it's marketed as a natural remedy, and it's among those herbs that firmly established themselves in the mainstream herbal supplement market. While the jury's still out on whether or not it lives up to all its claims, organic echinacea products sold by reputable companies are considered relatively safe. Issues affecting all commercial herbal supplements include pesticide residue, cheats on actual plant content, issues with consistency, lack of standardization, and tomfoolery. If you want to use echinacea, and you want to know how it's grown and managed, why not grow your own supply?
Three popular coneflowers are most commonly used in herbal medicine: E. angustifolia, E. pallida (less effective), and E. purpurea. Their chemical properties are reported to treat the following:
- Colds & flu
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Urinary tract infections
- Septicemia (kids, don't treat this at home)
- Rattlesnake bite (see above)
- Genital herpes and syphilis (maybe we need to start selling rubber tree plant seeds)
This is hardly a complete list, and given the dearth of academic research, the claims in favor of echinacea as a medicinal herb should largely be considered anecdotal. There are, however, studies showing promise for echinacea's effectiveness on the duration of cold and flu symptoms.
What's important to note is that echinacea's most active chemicals include inclalkylamides, alkamides, and phenols. Phenols are antioxidants, and the others are known to boost the immune system and act as antimicrobials.
We always encourage our customers to check with their doctors before using any herb in concentrated form, since—as with prescription compounds—any medication can counteract with others, or have negative effects on pre-existing conditions. Having said that, we're big fans of pursuing healthy, natural alternatives in any area of our lives, and we want to help you make the most informed decisions possible as you head down your own path to wellness.
Seed Needs: Treating Boringus Gardinitus for More Than a Decade
Whether you're in need of medicinal herbs, or your garden is fading from lack of late-season color, Seed Needs has the cure. We've been around since 2006, slowly growing our family business in response to our customer's requests...and thanks to tons of great reviews from those who, season after season, trust us to provide them with high-quality, fresh, non-GMO plant seeds.
If you're interested in any of our coneflower products, or if you'd like to learn more about new additions to our catalog, please contact us! Heck, you can reach out for any reason relating to improving your garden, and if you'd like to suggest a particular herb, vegetable, or ornamental, we're all ears!In the meantime, be sure to bookmark our blog, which we constantly update with growing tips and in-depth plant profiles.