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Echinacea 101

If you taste echinacea’s powerful root, you’ll be surprised by the tingling sensation that soon follows. While many herbalists enjoy echinacea’s root, the entire plant can be used for its immune boosting properties.* The alkyamides in echinacea help stimulate the immune system, but this is only one set of constituents that work in harmony with many others in the plant. Perhaps this is why it is one of the most studied plants in Western herbalism. The true identity of all the active principles still remains open, making echinacea’s true powers another plant mystery!

All the plants in the echinacea genus are indigenous to North America and originally dwelled in prairie lands. In the mid-1800s, the American Eclectic physicians began to use echinacea and its healing powers reached beyond the New World. By the beginning of the 20th century, it was one of the most frequently used herbal preparations in the United States, and overharvesting of the wild perennial flower soon followed.

Fortunately, United Plant Savers works to restore native populations of plants, and echinacea can now be cultivated in many different regions of the world. The best way to start your echinacea seeds is to have them endure a period of cold, moist stratification. What’s that, you ask? Some seeds are very hardy and lay dormant until awakened by the cold weather. Stratification either stimulates or creates winter conditions to encourage germination, or sprouting. In the wild, echinacea’s dormancy is naturally overcome by spending time in the ground and enduring long winters.

The easiest way to start echinacea at home is to sow echinacea seeds about ¼ inch deep in fall, cover with a thin layer of rich compost and let nature take its course over the winter. Another option is to place the seeds in a small jar with some sawdust, vermiculite or peat moss. Then moisten and place the jar inside the refrigerator for about a month. Once spring arrives, the seeds can be planted a ¼ inch deep into a large pot or directly into the soil. These purple coneflowers enjoy partial to full sun, ample water (but can handle some drought) and good drainage. You can expect the perennial to bloom fully by the summer of its second year.

The leaves of Echinacea purpurea sometimes have “covering trichomes,” which are hairs, emerging right from the skin (or epidermis) of the leaf. Our microscopist helps to identify plants, and saves photos like the above to deepen our knowledge of key plant identification features.

If you think you have found this plant in the wild, you will be able to identify it by some of its most pronounced features. All members of the Echinacea genus are perennials that bloom with both disk and ray flowers. The purple ray flowers attach to a round, high and spiky cone – hence the common name “purple coneflower.” Technically speaking, this thick and spiky cone is actually hundreds of more flowers, all tightly packed together.

So when you’re feeling like you need a plant ally to give you a boost, think of echinacea. Our Echinacea Plus® is a great formula if you are in need of a simple herbal tea to boost your immune system so you can stay vibrant, active and well. Now when you see a beautiful echinacea flower while you are out and about, its radiant purple flowers and sturdy structure will remind you of just how powerful this plant really is.

Posted in Plants on November 12, 2014