Echinacea Purpurea is an herbaceous perennial that is hardy to USDA zones 3 to 8 and its drought tolerant.
Native to the prairies of the Midwest, E. purpurea is one of the showier members of the Asteraceae family. Growing up to five feet tall, this gorgeous perennial is known for both its striking purple coneflowers and its important medicinal attributes. E. purpurea flowers grow from several stalks and are daisy shaped, with a central seed head encircled by bright purple petals. Leaves are cauline and grow from the stem more densely at the base of the plant, becoming sparser at the top. Leaves are lance shaped, and like the stems are somewhat coarse and rough. E. purpurea roots grow in a spreading, multi-branched root mass, whereas the E. angustifolio and other Echinacea species produce more of a taproot. Echinacea begins flowering in midsummer and continues flowering for many weeks. It is a favorite among pollinators.
E. purpurea grows best in full sun and well-drained loamy soil. As with many perennial crops, Echinacea responds well to ample fertility and can benefit from top-dressing of fertilizer according to soil tests taken during several years of growth. A consistent water supply increases growth, but Echinacea can also tolerate long dry spells.
Echinacea purpurea can be grown by direct-seeding in the fall or early spring or by transplanting plugs or crown divisions. When direct-seeded, plants do best with a fine seedbed and cool temperatures. Although seeds do not require stratification it can help increase germination rates. E. purpurea take approx. four weeks for germination, and seeds should be planted on the surface and covered lightly with soil.
This is one perennial that loves to be showcased. Plant E. purpurea where you can see it! We like to plant E. purpurea in large blocks, beds that have been well worked and cover cropped. Because of its susceptibility to aster yellows (a disease carried by leafhoppers) we avoid planting it next to calendula, which is also prone to this disease. E. purpurea needs at least three to four years to grow before root harvest. Therefore, good bed preparation is essential. E. purpurea plant spacing is eighteen inches within the row and twenty-eight inches between rows, with two rows per bed.
The entire plant of E. purpurea is medicinal. Most people are familiar with the root and the seeds. However, the leaves and flower are also healing. E. purpurea is a highly effective and safe immune herb that helps to jump-start the immune response in the body. Specifically, it increases the macrophage T-cell activity and helps boost the immune system at the onset of infection. It has been used successfully for hundreds of years to treat colds and flu’s and works well against both viral and bacterial infections. Echinacea can be used as a tea, made into tinctures, powdered and capsulated, or made into mouthwashes and throat sprays.
Leaves and flowers can begin to be harvested in the first year if planted early enough when they are in full blossom, usually around midsummer (note: although the second year of growth produces many more flowers.) It’s important to leave enough aerial growth to feed the root system, therefore we recommend only harvesting 10 to 20 percent of the tops at a time. E. purpurea is a multi-stemmed plant, so it’s easy to selectively harvest a few stems from each plant. Heavier leaf and flower harvests can be made from more mature plants without severely compromising root growth. The roots, on the other hand, are ready to be harvested in the fall of the third or fourth year. E. purpurea roots are easy to harvest by hand with a spading fork.
Post Harvest Drying Conditions
Once the flowers are harvested from the field, clip all the blossoms off the stem and run them through a chipper. Spread the chipped blossoms on drying screens with good airflow at temperature from 90 to 100 degrees F. Chipping the blossom before drying helps them dry more uniformly and make for easier processing. Leaves can be dried easily on the stalks. Place the aerial parts in a single layer on drying racks, and dry a temperatures of 100 to 110 degrees F. Once both flowers and leaves are dried, they can be mixed together or enjoyed separately. It’s helpful to quarter the roots of E. purpurea before washing. Echinacea roots are surprisingly soft and can easily be chopped with a field knife and mallet or small hatchet. After splitting the roots, wash thoroughly before drying. Mill roots after their fully dried, which takes places in about three to four days.
Pests and Diseases
E. purpurea is susceptible to leafhoppers and aster yellows, sclerotinia stem and root rot, and botrytis. Proper crop rotations and good cultivation practices will help reduce these disease and pest pressures. Carefully monitor your plants for aster yellows, removing any diseased plants, and you should be just fine.