The easiest method for sowing echinacea is to sow it indoors in trays (open trays or plugs) in early spring. Sow the seeds on the surface, or with a very light covering of seed compost, keep moist, and you should start to see germination within 1-2 weeks.
There are different opinions on whether echinacea seeds should be stratified before sowing. We have done quite a few experiments and found that seed that had been cold-moist stratified (mixed with sand, put in a sealed bag and kept in the fridge) for 1-3 months did germinate more quickly than non-stratified seed, and with a slightly higher germination rate. But unless you’re in a massive hurry (which you probably shouldn’t be) or have very few seeds (just buy more!), it’s debatable as to whether the effort involved in stratification is worth it. You should get good results either way.
We have also experimented with sowing outdoors in the autumn and found that it took longer to germinate and the germination rate was less. These outdoor seedlings, although harder to germinate and slower to grow, do appear to be more robust than their indoor counterparts – perhaps an important advantage if your garden is prone to slugs, frost or any other threats to survival.
Transplant into final position as early as possible with a spacing of around 30-60cm. If you’re lucky you may get a few flowers in the first year. And in the second year you’re in for a special treat!
Although famed for its root, in European herbalism there have been many clinical trials on the aerial parts of E. purpurea. The taste of the leaf is gentle, initially sweet, then some bitterness and a little tingling and astringency. The seeds on the other hand have a potent warmth and tingle-factor. The root of E. purpurea is somewhere in between the milder leaf and stronger seed. E. purpurea contains chicoric acid which E. angustifolia does not. The tingling effect is produced by mouth-watering alkylamides – also found in Schezuan pepper and Spilanthes aka ‘buzz buttons’ , – and the subtle sweetness by polysaccharides. Both compounds have been associated with helping to improve the body’s defences.
Echinacea is best understood as defending from the outside in, supporting immune functions and reducing inflammation and infection by mobilising defences.
It contains constituents known as isobutylamides, which are types of alkylamides. They act as insecticide defences for the plant and are found particularly in the roots and seeds. They can be clearly identified when good echinacea is tasted, as they create a ‘tingling’ or numbing effect upon the tongue. From laboratory studies it appears they may directly influence inflammatory cytokine production among defensive white blood cells found close to mucosal surfaces. Among other possible mechanisms they activate a type of cannabinoid receptor (CB2) that is involved in immune and inflammatory modulation.
Echinacea is considered as one of the primary remedies for assisting the body in clearing infection and strengthening the overall efficiency of the immune system. Echinacea reduces the severity and duration of symptoms, whilst also helping the body to deal with infection and stimulate the immune response. It will effectively target microbial, bacterial and viral infections throughout the body, but has a specific focus within the upper respiratory system and in conditions such as cold and flu, tonsillitis and laryngitis.
Echinacea is effective where the immune system has become compromised by being ‘run-down’ as a result of stress or over-work.
Harvest the roots at the end of their 3rd or 4th year. They are easy to dig up but need a bit more effort to clean the soil off all the rootlets than the tap rooted E. angustifolia. As for cleaning the many architectural roots, a pressure washer can be handy here. Once thoroughly cleaned, cut into thin slices and lay out on a drying rack and dry at around 40C for 12-16 hours.
Sprinkle some fresh flower petals to brighten your food in the Summer.
For seasonal chills make a cup of tea with three-year-old roots (you can use a two-year-old root but it will be smaller). Steep 1-3g of the cleaned and dried root in a cup of hot water for 10-15 minutes – best with something warming like elderberries or ginger. You can also use a couple of fresh leaves in a cup made as above – best with something warming like elderberries or thyme.
Or you can make a tincture by macerating 1 part of dried root in 5 parts of 40% alcohol for a couple of weeks. Or if you prefer a fresh extract, you can use the whole root, aerial parts and flower head: start nearer 1:2.5 @75% alcohol.
Also useful in cough syrups.
Fantastic for echinacea honey.
Great to add to any herbal pills or lozenges you make.
Echinacea makes an excellent poultice or salve for wounds and infections.
One potential downside of the sesquiterpene lactones is that they can act as mild to potent allergens for susceptible individuals. Reported reactions have ranged from varying degrees of allergic contact dermatitis all the way up to severe anaphylaxis requiring emergency treatment. Because these compounds are so widely distributed among the Asteraceae, cross reactions can easily occur. A person might become sensitized to the sesquiterpene lactones in one plant (e.g., Ragweeds – Ambrosia spp.) and subsequently will have a reaction to a novel species (e.g., Chamomile or Yarrow) in the family. This is why the herbalist should be cautious when using Asteraceae herbs with people who have a tendency toward respiratory and contact allergies or problems with chronic eczema / atopic dermatitis.