Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Echinacea: Beautiful, Drought-Tolerant, Beneficial

Echinacea is loved around the world for its beautiful, showy flowers and reputed herbal remedies. If only all our plants could be so useful. It requires very little maintenance, too. 

Echinacea has been used for centuries by Native Americans as a natural solution to physical ailments. Popularized by John Uri Lloyd, a pharmacist and medicinal plant enthusiast, Echinacea is used worldwide as an immuno-stimulant.
This close relative of Rudbeckia, or Black-eyed Susan, is native to the Great Plains region of the United States and Canada and has many monikers including: The Hedgehog or Purple Cone flower, Kansas Snakeroot, Droops, Black Sampson, Sampson root, Scurvy root and Comb flower. 

Echinacea purpurpea, a common species, comes from the Greek word echinos for 'hedgehog' and purpurea for 'purple'. E. purpurea is one of nine species Asteraceae family. All nine are 2-4 feet tall perennials that live in USDA Climate Zones 3-9. They all require full sun and well-drained soil (hint: raised beds) and are exceptionally drought tolerant. Seed them this spring and they will bloom in the next year’s summer. Once established they bloom every year. E. purpurea is a striking plant available in many colors. The center of the fragrant 4 – 6 inch bloom is a brown or green spiky cone that attracts masses of butterflies and bees. The flowers are showy and make brilliant cut or dried arrangements. Blooms are supported by hairy unbranched stalks in the midst of narrow jagged deep green leaves.
  • There are several popular varieties: E. purpurea ‘Magnus’ This Perennial Plant of the Year in 1998 has rosy purple sunflower-esque blooms from July – October with a height up to 3’.
  • E. purpurea ‘White Swan’The petals of this classic white showy coneflower droop from the copper-orange center. Blooms June to August and grows up to 3’.
  • E. x purpurea ‘Green Envy’ – This 3’ tall exotic’s wide petals surround the cone in pink and fade to light green. Blooms July to September.
  • E. x purpurea ‘Sunrise’ – Delicate pale yellow flowers reflex away from the cone that transitions from green to gold. Blooms July – October and grows up to 3’.
  • E. x purpurea ‘Kim’s Knee High’ – These very pink shuttlecocks float on the breeze around an orange center and bloom from July to October. Grows up to 2’ tall.
  • E. purpurea ‘Sunset’ – Deep orange overlapping petals surround a fat brown cone. It stands 2.5’ high and blooms from July to October.
Echinacea thrives under specific but easy conditions:
  • full sun;
  • well-drained, aerated and fertile soil;
  • pH near 7.0, though will tolerate more acid or alkaline soils.
Your nearby Cooperative Extension Service can assist you with a very simple and inexpensive soil test.

Echinacea loves sunlight. It will grow tall in the shade, but it won’t be lush. Well-drained soil is essential. It should never have to sit long with roots in soggy soil. If you’re planting in a low lying area, use a raised bed.

In the spring, cultivate your garden as normal. Ordinary garden soil is usually good enough for Coneflower, but if your soil is sandy or clay add a little compost or organic fertilizer. 

E. purpurea is available in many sizes but you don’t need them any bigger than gallon pots. Buying them bare root or in small pots is easy and a lot cheaper. If the plants are young they do require frequent water and some weeding. You can plant them any time of year, but the hotter the weather the more water they'll need. Protect them with wire cages or netting if Peter Rabbit dines at your place. 

Be sure to space Coneflower about 12 inches apart because they can spread up to 2 feet. E. purpurea may need up to 18 inches per plant. Watch these seedlings take off during the summer.

Greater spacing between plants might help prevent the only two reported diseases: fungal leafspot and root rot. Deer are not a problem with Echinacea but gophers, moles and rabbits like the roots, especially of young plants. Leafhoppers, grasshoppers, a nematode and Japanese beetle are the reported minor pests. Goldfinches love Echinacea seed crop and can eat all the seed in a few days. 

While the flower blooms in between June and October, deadhead them to extend the bloom cycle or leave spent blooms for winter architectural interest. Echinacea plants are good at self-sowing so leave a few of the last flowers to dry up naturally. Watch out for Echinacea seedlings in the spring and transplant them appropriately. 

After 3 or 4 years, the plants are ready to be thinned. Depending on how they respond to your soil you can separate up to 6 plants from an original. In warmer climes, divide your plants in the fall or spring. First loosen the soil around the circumference of the mature plant’s root system. Insert your spade and lift it up. Remove excess soil by gently shaking it. Pull the root clump apart following its natural divisions. Replant the divisions in freshly cultivated soil with frequent watering until you see new growth.

If you are interested in old-fashioned herbal remedies for the common cold or just wanting a wilderness look in your garden, Echinacea is a timeless plant for modern needs.

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