Echinacea: How to Grow Purple Coneflower and Use it for Herbal Remedies
I love seeing this purple flower every July in Wisconsin. I see it both in landscaping arrangements around homes or businesses and along the roads and trails growing in the wild. Echinacea, commonly known also as purple coneflower, is a beautiful perennial plant that also happens to offer a whole host of health benefits. It is easy to grow Echinacea yourself, and then use parts of the plants for its various applications.
What is Echinacea?
Echinacea is a perennial flower that grows up to 4 feet tall. It can be recognized by its pale purple flower petals and spiny orange brown head in the middle. The head of the flower, the seed cone, stands higher as the ray-shaped petals hang down from it, which is why it is also called coneflower. The flower head and petals together resemble a badminton birdie. Most purple coneflowers grow from a single stem, but some have branching.
The flower is a relative to other wildflowers and is part of the Asteraceae group, which includes a broad range of other flowering plants like daisies. It is found among other wildflowers in open prairies and other dry wooded areas.
Usable Plant Parts
Nearly all of the parts of Echinacea can be used, but most common are the roots, petals, and leaves. Using the whole root requires sacrificing the plant and, depending on where you’re pulling the plant from, ruining your flower garden. It is possible to just cut a portion of the root, however, and the plant will still come back the following year. For roots to be large enough for harvest, the flower has to have been established for at least 3 to 4 years. Petals and leaves can be taken from the plant during the summer, and will regenerate. Purple coneflower petals and leaves are also edible by themselves as food.
Indigenous to North America
Echinacea is native only to North America, and can be found mostly in the central to eastern regions of the continent. It survives in hardiness zones 5-8. In most zones where it grows, it blooms from mid-June to mid-August. It has been known since early settlers arrived, and for many years before that by Native Americans. Historians think that Native Americans were using the plant for medicinal purposes for over 400 years before Europeans arrived. Echinacea has also been found in Europe since the 1700’s, when it was brought back by voyagers from North America.
Different Native American groups have different uses for the plant. Many groups referred to it as ‘Elk Root’ because they noticed that elk would find the plant and eat it when they were sick or injured. They began using the leaves as an application for infections, and then later went on to use it for other ailments like sore throat, headache, and fever.
There are over 40 different types of purple coneflower that have been identified, but scientists agree that these can be divided into 9 species. The most common is Echinacea Purpurea, but others like Echinacea Paradoxa (yellow coneflower) or Echinacea Pallida (pale purple flowers) can be found in the wild.
In recent decades, botanists and plant breeders have been able to produce varieties of Echinacea with amazing beauty and color, some of which are hardly recognizable when compared to the original coneflower. Most of these are used for ornamental use in home gardens, and are not grown for medicinal purposes. Some showy new varieties include ‘Cheyenne Spirit,” which produce red, orange, or yellow blossoms; and ‘Flame Thrower,” which have petals that appear to be tie-dyed red and orange. Top hybrid coneflowers are good alternatives to more fragile plants in more drought-ridden areas, as they are quite hardy and can withstand harsh conditions.
The principal varieties of purple coneflower used for health purposes are E. Purpurea, E. Angustiofolia, and E. Pallida.
What are the Health Benefits of Echinacea?
Unlike with many herbal remedies, there is quite a bit of research suggesting real health benefits from Echinacea. Scientists have also studied in detail the different chemicals present in the plant. Some of the beneficial substances found in purple coneflower are:
- Caffeic Acid Derivatives - Phenol compounds that have antioxidant and immune boosting effects
- Alkamides - A bioactive natural compound found in plants that improve immune response, aid in digestion, improve circulation, and act as a natural painkiller; thought to be one of the most potent beneficial chemicals in Echinacea
- Polysaccharides – Long-chained sugars, used by the body for energy, improved mood, and regulating blood sugar (found mostly in Echinacea leaves and petals)
- Glycoproteins – Cells with both sugar and protein that encourage cells of the body to work in sync, promote skin health, anti-cancer properties
- Flavonoids – A group of nutrients with antioxidant properties (nicotriflorin is the main flavonoid found in purple coneflower)
- Volatile Oils (Essential Oils) – Thought to have anti-inflammatory effects, found mostly in the root of the plant
Before commercial antibiotics existed, Echinacea was commonly used to treat both internal infections and infected wounds. Now after much debate surrounding the overuse of antibiotics and the population building resistance to them, Echinacea is coming back into play as an option to treat more mild infections.
Although Native Americans and other herbalists have made many claims regarding the healing power of Echinacea for hundreds of ailments, many of those claims haven’t been backed up by any data or studies. The following health benefits have been cited by the scientific community:
- Boosts Overall Immune Health - Many individuals take Echinacea proactively to avoid getting sick
- Prevents Colds and Flu - In one study, those taking Echinacea while having a cold saw their symptoms disappear up to 4 days faster than those who did not use the herb
- Soothes Sore Throat – Taken as a tea, purple coneflower petals and leaves can act as an analgesic and ease a sore throat
- Acts as a Painkiller – Again because of its analgesic properties, taken orally, Echinacea can bring relief for headache or muscle aches
- Anti-Caner – The herb has been shown to have anti-cancer actions in adults who take Echinacea occasionally
- Alleviate Skin Conditions – As an ointment, Echinacea can alleviate itching due to allergies, and can help with conditions like psoriasis and eczema
Growing Purple Coneflower
Growing Echinacea from seed is very easy. Many garden stores sell seeds of all varieties. Seeds can either be sown in summer or fall for blooms the following spring, or in the spring right before the last frost. Coneflowers don’t necessarily need a freezing or stratification period, but do better when allowed to sit over winter first. They can be sown directly into the ground ½ inch deep. Seeds should be watered (except during winter) during their first year to make sure they are established, but after that should be tolerant to drought and will only need rain water.
If planting from seed along with other wild flowers, one method is to mix the flower seeds together with coarse sand and distribute evenly over the soil where you intend to plant them. This will result in a natural-looking array of flowers that are evenly spaced. They will fill in more each year.
Purple coneflower is not too particular about soil conditions, and will even grow just fine in rocky, poor soil. However, they will perform better if planted in rich soil with added compost. They don’t need fertilizer or pest control.
You can also grow purple coneflower from the seeds that result once the flower is spent. You can harvest them by cutting the stalk and hanging the browned flower upside down, wrapping the flower part in a brown bag. The seeds will fall off and can be stored for next year once they are completely dried.
Echinacea can be divided at its root and distributed to make more plants. You can do this either in fall or spring. Choose a plant that has been established for at least a few years. To divide, dig up an entire purple coneflower plant and remove most of the soil. You will see that there are several plants stemming from the root ball clump. Pull them apart with your hands, or if it is really tough, divide with a knife. Right after dividing them, move them to their new permanent location.
Regardless of the method you use, once your Echinacea crop is established, there is little you need to do to care for them. In mid-fall the flowers will come to seed, leaving the blackened cone at the top. You can leave the flower like this through the winter, and just cut back the old flower a few inches down come spring. A new one will grow in its place. The seeds will also fall from the seed cone and plant themselves in the garden, thickening the crop.
Harvesting Echinacea Petals and Leaves
These parts of the plant are most potent when they first begin to appear in mid-summer. You can cut the plant stem at the point where new leaves are growing. You can use petals and leaves fresh, or dry them and store for future use. To dry, lay the cut flower on a mesh screen, or hang upside down. If hanging, make sure you have something below to catch the leaves as they fall. Dried plant parts can be stored in a glass container.
Harvesting Echinacea Roots
Plan to harvest roots in late fall once all of the flowers have browned and the weather falls below freezing at night. Carefully dig to where the root is, and depending on whether you are interested in taking up the whole root or just a small piece, either pull up the plant entirely, or carefully cut off a piece of the root. Be sure to wash all of the dirt off the root, and then cut it into small cubes. Allow it to dry indoors in a space that is not too moist or hot. Once the root is completely dry, you can store them at room temperature in a glass jar. Avoid storing in plastic bags.
How to Use Echinacea Plant Parts
Homemade Echinacea Tea
You can use either fresh or dried flowers to make Echinacea tea. Just steep ½ cup of dried, or ¾ cup fresh, leaves in 1 cup of boiling water for 15 minutes. You can also use roots and leaves in the tea. Then remove the leaves and add honey or another sweetener as desired. Echinacea tea can be used as a proactive measure during winter months to bolster the immune system, or can be taken to ease cold symptoms and sore throat.
A tincture is a concentrated liquid essence of an herb. It can be made with dried cone flower plant parts and alcohol or vinegar. To make an Echinacea tincture, fill a glass jar about ½ full with dried leaves or roots. Fill the jar with food-grade alcohol or apple cider vinegar on top of that. Cap the jar, and leave this mixture to sit for a few weeks for up to 6 months, shaking it once a day to mix. Once you are ready to use it, strain the mixture and discard the herbs. Store the tincture in a glass jar or container meant for essential oils.
To use the tincture, drink ½ teaspoon of the concentrated liquid a few times a day if you experience cold or flu symptoms.
Caution with Echinacea
If you are pregnant, don’t use Echinacea. There has not been enough research regarding how the herb affects the fetus in utero, so it is best not to risk it. If you are breastfeeding, it is most likely OK (some studies have even shown improved immune response in babies breastfeeding from mothers who took Echinacea), but always talk to your doctor first.
Try not to use Echinacea when taking other medicines. Again, not enough research has been done to show how it might react with other drugs. Don’t use the herb for extended periods of time (longer than 10 days), since some gastrointestinal problems or mild, temporary rashes have been reported with prolonged use.