Echinacea: a guide for those who want to grow it

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Echinacea is of interest as either a beautiful flower, or as an extract that boosts immunity. This article focuses on the flower aspect.

In the Winter of 1804, while exploring the Western U.S., Meriwether Lewis found that the Narrow-leaved Coneflower made “an excellent poultice for swellings or soar throat.” (1)

This was Echinacea Angustifolia, one of nine species of Echinacea, all of them medicinally valuable. All nine species contain the valuable extract. This article hopes to help you grow the plant for its blossoms.

Home gardeners tend to prefer E. Purpurea, as it is easier to transplant. (The other Echinacea have deep tap roots, but E. Purpurea does not.) If, as many gardeners do, you buy potted Echinacea at a garden center, you will appreciate this difference.

The blossoms can be light purple to pink, or white. The flowers have spiny centers, usually at least an inch wide, with petals radiating out from the edges. They are held aloft on thick stems that can be between 18 and thirty-six inches tall. They start blooming in early July, and can be induced to repeat blooming if you remove spent blossoms. The aroma of the spiny center is sweet, and attracts many types of bees, butterflies, and even hummingbirds.

Another advantage of E. Purpurea for a gardener is that it can readily be grown from seed. It's more readily grown from seed than the other Echinacea species. Some time in April or even March, you can set out pots or planters in a sunny spot on your windowsill, put potting soil in them, press Echinacea seeds into the soil (a quarter of an inch of soil can go over the seeds), and water a bit every day.

The seeds will start coming up after eight or nine days, and should get enough water so they don't dry out. In late May, they can safely be put outside. By mid-June, you can dig holes in the ground, carefully remove the contents of the pots, and plant them. For more tips on growing, check out handy gardening tips A328772. To position them in your garden, check Principles of landscape design A578568.

E. Purpurea does not produce blossoms in its first year, as it lacks the root structure to support them. Once the plants are well-established, though, the roots will likely spread out and send up additional stems, which will bear more and more blossoms. (2)

An alternative to planting them in the ground is growing them in planters or pots, which need to be large enough to accommodate their roots. A five-gallon planter is the smallest size that can be recommended for the beginner.
If the soil is good and the light is adequate, the only remaining factor will be keeping the plants from drying out. In a rainy Summer, this will not be a problem, but dry ones come along sometimes. It will not hurt if you add a little water every day, assuming that excess water can drain through holes in the bottom of the pots.

So far, we have been talking about the "species," or original form of Echinacea. A robust industry has developed around special forms of the plant. Some, like the Powwow cultivars, are close enough to the original to be grown from seed. They can even bloom in their first year, if your growing season is long enough. They can also self-seed, though their progeny may not breed true.

Others, like the Sombrero series, are hybrids. They will not self-seed, except in very rare circumstances. The methods by which the colors developed for these hybrids can be complex, and there isn't space to discuss this. Nonetheless, the gardener may like the color of one of these hybrids, and want to buy it as a potted plant.

Just about every year, new cultivars of Echinacea are introduced, so this entry cannot claim to be comprehensive. If you like this type of plant, plan to visit your favorite garden center beginning in late June, to see what is available.

Whether to remove spent blossoms or not is up to the gardener. An argument can be made that the seeds and other seed head parts will provide food or nesting materials for birds. This may be an aesthetic judgment, as some people like the appearance of seed heads. In any event, whatever the birds don't eat may sprout the following Spring, assuming that the cultivars have produced viable seeds.

After Winter is over, new growth will likely come up from the roots in April or May. If you have picked a favorable spot for your Echinacea, you may be rewarded with years of blooms.


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