I like to grow flowering herbs in the front row of my garden, so their colours and fragrances cannot be missed by people or pollinating insects. One of my favourites 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.
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 autumn. 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.
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.
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