Commonly known as coneflower, echinacea is a delightful addition to any garden in USDA zones 3-8. The common name comes from the cone-shaped central disc that stands out prominently among the single layer of petals. The petals themselves are slightly reflexed or droopy, a common characteristic shared by most echinacea species.
Purple coneflower or E. purpurea is the most well known of coneflower species, but you can find several other species and hybrid varieties. Here are some very good reasons why you should welcome these tall plants with large, showy flowers into your garden.
1. Echinacea flowers are bold and beautiful
The first time you come across echinacea plants in their full summer glory, this is the thought that crosses your mind. They are bold and beautiful. The tall clumps stand erect, holding large, single flowers well above the foliage. The daisy-like flowers may be 4-6 inches across, and are long-lasting both on the plant and as cut flowers.
2. You have several color and form variations to choose from
The purple coneflower E. purpurea with its purplish pink flowers may be the most commonly seen, but echinacea species come in many other colors. E. paradoxa, for instance, has yellow flowers, while E. pallida flowers are a very light pink. Over the last few years, many new varieties in attractive shades and flower forms have been developed.
Hybrids of the purple and yellow coneflowers have flowers in various shades of peaches, pinks and purples, orange, and even red. Pure white and greenish white coneflowers are there, along with creams, cream-pinks. If you’re not particularly fond of the baldy look of coneflowers, go for varieties that have the center disc filled in with colorful, yet tinier ray flowers.
3. They attract pollinators to your garden
Echinacea has a long blooming season in summer that stretches into fall. The central disc florets of echinacea flowers produce plenty of nectar that attracts bees, butterflies, and other insects into your garden. It is a visual feast watching colorful butterflies fluttering over coneflower beds in full bloom.
Attracting bees and butterflies into the garden benefits other crops growing there. These pollinators help increase the yield of vegetable and fruit crops that favor cross-pollination.
4. It is a goldfinch magnet in fall and winter
As the flowers fade and the nectar dries up, the flower heads of echinacea continue to attract winged beauties, but it is time for the birds now. Goldfinches are particularly fond of echinacea seeds. Many gardeners refrain from removing the dried up plants just to have these birds visit their garden.
5. It is a native plant
Echinacea is a true North American native, which explains the great attraction it holds for insect pollinators and birds. Native plants need to be promoted because they are critical to the native ecosystem. Native wildlife depends mostly on native plants for their sustenance.
Plants introduced into the land often become invasive, edging out many native plants. This deprives many native animals of their food and shelter. Coneflowers are worth preserving for this reason alone, although they have many other positives going for them.
6. Echinacea has healing properties
Echinacea is one of the easily recognized of the medicinal herbs. It has a long history of being used as a general tonic to increase immunity, especially against cold and flu viruses and pathogenic bacteria. Its antimicrobial activity promotes wound healing and its anti-inflammatory property makes it useful in the treatment of upper respiratory inflammations, skin rashes, and swellings due to insect bites.
We have a duty to preserve the herbal wealth of our land for future generations, and echinacea can very well be considered a mascot of North American medicinal plants. Both E. angustifolia and E. purpurea have medicinal properties, although the former is more widely used.
7. You can make a healing tea with its leaves and flowers
The medicinal properties of this common wildflower were known to the native people, who used the roots in many of their herbal preparations. Echinacea is commercially available in many forms, and they become hugely popular during cold and flu seasons.
If you have echinacea growing in your garden, you can easily prepare the healing tea at home to improve your immunity against diseases and to combat bacterial and viral infections. You can find a simple method for making echinacea tea towards the end of this article.
8. Echinacea is easy to grow
Echinacea is a native wild plant that self-seeds readily. It is easy to grow from seeds, cuttings, and divisions and easily adapts to a wide range of climatic and cultural conditions. It does not demand much attention or pampering from you, so it is a great choice for novice gardeners.
There are many new varieties of echinacea available now, so you can choose the ones that are best for your garden. Most species of echinacea grow up to 4 feet, but you can choose dwarf varieties that barely reach knee height.
9. Echinacea is a perennial
But why should that be a good reason to grow them?
Perennials should be treasured in gardens because they spare you the trouble of starting new plants every year. Perennials generally die down in winter and then magically resurrect in spring, putting out vigorous growth from their underground parts. You don’t have to start seeds early, harden off the seedlings, and then transplant them in their target sites.
Echinacea does not completely die down in winter. Many gardeners find that the spent plants covered in dry seed heads actually add winter interest to their gardens. The visits from goldfinches add to the charm. Removing the remains of echinacea plants in spring is actually better than doing it in fall. It results in more vigorous spring growth.
As a perennial, echinacea is short-lived. Many gardeners find their original clumps disappearing in 5-6 years. Self-seeding often makes it less obvious, though.
10. It is drought resistant and shade tolerant
Echinacea plants adapt well to a wide range of growing conditions. Although it appreciates getting a moderate amount of water regularly, it is tough enough to tide over extended periods of drought.
The long tap root of echinacea may be able to access moisture deep down in the soil. The roots are fleshy and capable of storing some water. That is one of the reasons why drainage is important for this plant from the dry prairies. They are often planted in raised beds or mounds to ensure good drainage.
Echinacea thrives in full sun, but can do well in partial shade too. That gives you some amount of flexibility as to where you can grow them in the garden. In small yards with space limitations, these tall plants can be planted against the house, garage, or a wall, where they will make a good backdrop for shorter plants. As long as the plants get 3-6 hours of direct sun, they will remain happy and put up a good flower show.
How to grow Echinacea
Echinacea is a cold hardy perennial that grows well in Zones 3-8. You can grow it from seeds, divisions, and root cuttings. Although this North American native plant with a wide distribution is not very particular about soil, it needs good drainage. It is tolerant of partial shade, but a sunny location brings the best out of this floriferous plant.
To grow echinacea from seeds, cold stratification is required. One way to do this is sowing the seeds out in the garden or in containers in late fall, and allowing winter to provide the dormancy the seeds require before germination. The seedlings will emerge in spring.
But if you want to get large flowering plants in the very first season, give them a head start by starting the seeds indoors. Place the seeds in a wet tissue paper or a wad of sphagnum moss and store them in a box in the refrigerator for 6-8 weeks. Sow them in seed cups afterward and transplant the seedlings in spring.
Root cuttings should be taken in late fall or early winter since it is least disturbing for the dormant parent plant. Water the area the previous evening to dampen the soil. Start digging a few inches away from the base of the plant until its fleshy roots become visible. Gently remove the soil around the exposed root until you can get a 3-inch section with a healthy sprout growing from it. Sever the root section by making a clean cut at each end of the section.
After trimming the sprout to 2-3 inches, plant it in a potting mixture of 3 parts sand and 2 parts peat. Place the pot in a protected area away from direct sun and keep the medium barely moist until new growth appears. It usually takes 2-3 weeks.
Division of clumps is the least preferred way to propagate echinacea. This method gives you bushy plants, but they may not be as floriferous as seed grown plants. Water a clump until the soil is saturated. Cut into the middle of the clump and lift up one section, filling up the hole immediately to keep the other half steady. Pot up the division in moist, but well-draining soil mix. Keep it in partial shade until it is fully revived.
Echinacea is an easy-care plant that does not need much pampering. It does not need fertilizers when starting out. Overfeeding can, in fact, results in lanky plants that do not perform well. Avoid overwatering too. Lack of drainage can cause root rot, which may kill the plant. Too much mulch around the plant in winter is also known to create damp conditions that result in rot. Spontaneous dying out of echinacea clumps could be due to this.
Deadheading is the main maintenance task required of you. It extends the summer blooming season well into fall. It also prevents uncontrolled self-seeding all around the garden.
Collecting and storing Echinacea root
Echinacea angustifolia is the species more popularly used medicinally, but E. purpurea also have similar healing properties. Native Indians used echinacea roots for their herbal medicines, but many gardeners find it difficult to dig up the roots. If you are up to it, you can harvest the roots in late fall or early winter when a clump is 3 years old.
Wash all the dirt off the roots and cut them up into smaller pieces with a pair of garden clippers. The roots are too tough to be cut with a knife. Although the root pieces can be dried and stored, fresh echinacea roots are more often used to make tinctures.
To make Echinacea root tincture:
Fill ¾ of a glass jar with the root pieces and pour twice the quantity of vodka or vegetable glycerin. Shake well and cap the glass jar. keep it in a warm place for 1-2 months, shaking the bottle once or twice a day. Filter the liquid out into clean glass jars and store in a cool place.
Use the tincture internally for treating cold, flu, and other respiratory infections. Use it topically on rashes, insect bites, wounds, and skin infections.
Collecting and storing Echinacea flowers and leaves
The leaves and flowers of echinacea are almost as effective as the root, but a lot milder, and easier to harvest and use. Collect mature leaves and flowers in their prime, wash them quickly under running water, and hang them up to dry or spread on a wire screen. Keep a sheet of paper or a piece of clean cloth to catch the petals that fall.
Drying should be done in a dark but well-ventilated area. When the petals as well as the cones are completely dry, store them in large glass jars. One teaspoon of dried and crushed echinacea flowers is equivalent to one cup of fresh flowers in herbal preparations.
How to make an herbal tea from fresh Echinacea
When you have echinacea growing in your garden, you can make use of its wonderful medicinal properties by brewing a healing tea at the very first sign of cold or flu.
You will need:
- 2 cups of water
- 1 cup of echinacea flowers or leaves
- A stalk of lemon grass
- A sprig of spearmint
- ½ a lemon
- 2 teaspoons of honey
Place the echinacea plant parts, lemongrass and mint in a glass or ceramic bowl with close-fitting lid. Boil the 2 cups of water and pour it over the herbs. Cover the bowl and allow them to steep for 15-20 minutes. Strain the tea into a jug and add honey and a squeeze of lemon. This is optional. You can use stevia instead for sweetness.
Echinacea has anti-inflammatory properties, but part of its benefits comes from its immune-boosting action. So it is most effective if the tea is taken at the start of the cold or flu. It is good for throat and ear infections too.
This tea is mild enough to be given to children, but for a more potent tea, you can use the root. Echinacea root tea is bitter, but it is the traditionally used portion of the plant. Root tinctures are much more palatable.
So, while you are planning your garden this spring, don’t forget to include some of these amazingly beautiful and highly therapeutic beauties in your plans!