Fall is here and Winter is coming. I love how herbs seem to be ready for harvest just as we need them, and fall means it is time to harvest the Echinacea! I want to be sure I have plenty of it prepped and ready when the winter illnesses start popping up. Once you discover its wonders and benefits you’ll never want to be without.
Echinacea was one of the original “Snake Oils.” In the 1870’s Dr. H. C. F. Meyer claimed it cured nearly everything including snake bites. He believed in this cure for snake bites so much he offered to let himself be bitten by a snake in front of a few prominent doctors of the time. He said he would then treat himself with only his Echinacea concoction. The doctors declined the offer. He was, however, persistent enough that one of the doctors, Dr.King, began studying Echinacea and realized that it was very useful in treating many different infectious diseases of the time.
In truth, one of Echinacea’s names is Kansas snake-root and Native Americans of the time shared their knowledge of the healing properties of Echinacea with European settlers. A few snake oil salesmen may have just taken it a bit too far. Let’s take a look at what it is good for.
How to grow Echinacea
Echinacea, also known as coneflower or purple coneflower, is a perennial herb that grows in zones 3-9 and blooms mid to late summer. There are three common types of Echinacea that are used medicinally – E. Augustifolia, E. Pallida, and E. Purpurea. E. Augustifolia has the strongest properties of the three.
Echinacea is an endangered plant, so growing or buying your own Echinacea is preferred to harvesting from the wild. You can read more about endangered plants at United Plant Savers. To grow Echinacea from seeds you’ll need to artificially stratify them unless you have a consistently cold winter. If you have consistently cold winters you can plant seeds in the late fall or early spring. Space them about 12 inches apart. E. Augustifolia can do well in poor soil with light watering. E. Purpurea and E. Pallida prefer a richer soil with moderate watering. Full sun is best for all. A well-drained soil will make a better medicinal plant. They will grow in boggy soil but the properties will be reduced.
Where does Echinacea grow?
Echinacea is a prairie wildflower with pink to purple florets around a cone of seeds. E. Augustifolia is native to North American prairies and open meadows. E. Purpurea and E. Pallida are more common in the east. All kinds can be found in gardens everywhere!
How to Harvest Echinacea
The roots and aerial parts are used from the Echinacea plant. The aerial parts are most often used for herbal teas, while the roots hold the most powerful medicine from the plant.
Harvesting the aerial parts can be done in the second year of growth. Harvesting the aerial parts is as simple as cutting the stem above the lowest pair of leaves. Strip the leaves and the flower buds from the stem and lay them flat to dry. This can be done anytime during the growing season. A good time to do it is when you’re cutting back the Echinacea.
Harvest the roots of a 2-3-year-old plant in the spring or the fall. E. Augustifolia has fibrous roots and E. Purpurea has a taproot. To harvest Echinacea, using a shovel or a garden fork, lift the roots out of the ground around the Echinacea plant. I use a large shovel and basically dig up the whole root ball of the plant. Now you can take pieces of the root from the root ball to harvest or you can remove the whole plant to harvest the roots. Removing the whole plant can allow you to thin out your Echinacea patch. If you choose to just harvest parts of the root ball, you can place the remaining roots back in the ground to replant.
How to preserve Echinacea
To preserve your leaves and buds simply take the dried parts and store them in a dark area in an airtight container until you are ready to make some tea.
To preserve your roots you can dry them to use in decoctions later, or you can start a tincture. I personally love having Echinacea tincture on hand at all times so that is where most of my roots go to.
Once you have your roots harvested you’ll want to shake the dirt off the roots. Next rinse them in cold water and pat them dry. I use a hose with a spray head to really get the dirt off outside, then I put them in a bucket of water to get the rest of the dirt off.
After you have cleaned the dirt off the roots you can dry them or you can tincture them. Both options will require you to cut or chop the roots into pieces. Kitchen scissors work great!
To dry your Echinacea roots, take the cut pieces and lay them out on a screen in a well-ventilated area, out of direct sunlight. Let them sit for at least two weeks. Once they are dry place them in an airtight container, out of direct sunlight.
How to save seeds from Echinacea
Fall is also a great time to collect seeds from your Echinacea plant. If you don’t collect the seeds they will follow the natural process, falling to the ground and be spread by wind and animals. No harm in that!
If you would like to collect your seeds you’ll need to wait until the time is right. Harvest seeds from a two-year-old plant. Stop watering the plants in late summer, it is a drought resistant plant and too much moisture may ruin the seeds. As the blooms wilt in the fall, watch the seed heads, they will begin to plump up.Harvest the seeds when they are plump, not flat.
When the seeds are ready gather your supplies. Grab a pair of scissors and something to catch the seeds – a bowl will work but a brown paper bag works best. You can easily clip the tops of the flower into the bag, not losing any seeds. Grab the stems after they are clipped and shake the seeds off into the bag or bowl. After you’ve removed all the seeds, place them in a shallow box or on a cookie tray in a single layer. Shaking occasionally to make sure they dry evenly, leave them to dry for a month or so.
After they are dry, remove the dry outer layer to reveal the actual seed. You can do this by hand or by using a screen to rub the seeds on for friction. Make sure the seeds are completely dry by testing a few. If they crack when you pinch them they are dry. If they are still soft and do not crack, they are not dried completely. You can now store the seeds for a later season in a paper envelope (don’t forget to label it). Or you can spread the seeds in the garden allowing them to stratify naturally over the winter.
How to buy Echinacea
Buying Echinacea is very easily done. You can find the plants at your local greenhouse in the spring. If you look online, you can find dried roots ready for making tinctures, as well as aerial parts for adding to tea.
How to heal with Echinacea
Echinacea is not a culinary herb but it can be added to your winter wellness teas as it is needed. Echinacea is hailed as a strong immune booster but it should not be taken daily to boost the immune system. Instead, Echinacea is best started at the beginning of an illness or infection, taking a break from it after 5-10 days. Echinacea is generally safe for all ages. It works to boost antibody formation, stimulate white blood cells and strengthen lymph nodes. All important to fighting off an illness. Using Echinacea daily may reduce the power of the herb to work when it is needed most. Those with a rare allergy to plants in the aster family may be allergic to Echinacea.
Properties of Echinacea include anti-microbial, anti-viral, immunomodulator, anti-inflammatory, anti-catarrhal, and alternative to name a few. These properties make Echinacea good for situations such as bacterial and viral infections. It is good for upper respiratory infections, strep throat, tonsillitis and laryngitis. Echinacea is good for issues of the mouth and can be used as a mouthwash for things such as gingivitis and gum disease. Taking Echinacea can also help battle boils, ulcers and abscesses. Externally the decoction can be used for ulcers, sore throats as a gargle and athlete’s foot.
Echinacea is most often used as a tincture or a decoction. A decoction is a tea made with roots. To make a decoction you simmer the roots for 10 minutes instead of brewing as you would with leaves and flowers. About a tablespoon of dried roots in a pint of water is a good starting point.
The tincture of Echinacea can be placed in a tea, used as a throat spray or taken alone. It has a tingling effect on contact. This tingling effect works wonders on a sore throat, especially when using it as a throat spray.
My personal experience with Echinacea has been wonderful. Growing it is easy, harvesting it is easy, and it is all very worth your time. Especially when you feel that achy feeling coming on! You can learn more about how to use your root concoctions over at Melissa and Yarrow. It’s time for winter so get some and get started!