Advertisement

Echinacea is herb of the year

April 08, 2002|BY Dorry Baird Norris

Echinacea is herb of the year

Sometimes the most satisfying gardening pleasures sneak up on you while you're performing the peskiest of chores.

One year, struggling to dig out Bermuda grass advancing toward the base of a sturdy, gloriously blooming Echinacea, I was joined by a butterfly. She settled down and began, contentedly, sipping nectar from the spiny cone rising from the center of the daisy-like magenta petals. It is from this orange-tipped seed head that the plant derives its name - echinos is Greek for hedgehog or sea urchin. The butterfly's tiny dark proboscis darted into the heart of the cone and then she moved on to the next.

Time passed - Bermuda grass unpulled - as I remained cross-legged and motionless on the pathway, fascinated by this magical process.

As the butterfly loves it for food and the gardener delights in it as a sturdy ornamental, the herbalist swears by echinacea for its healing attributes. It is all three of these qualities that have earned Echinacea purpurea its place as the International Herb Association 2002 Herb of the Year. This is the first time since the Herb of the Year was introduced in 1995 that a plant known primarily for its medicinal qualities has been selected for this honor.

Advertisement

Known more commonly as coneflower, echinacea is native to North America and thrives in zones 3 through 9. Large blossoms, magenta to pink, stand proudly atop 30-inch, bristly stems. The lance-like leaves are equally rough.

Native Americans used various parts of the plant to treat everything from arthritis to venomous bites, not to mention mumps, measles, sore throats, toothache and venereal disease. The American medical profession was introduced to echinacea in the 1880s. It was listed in the U.S. National Formularly from 1916-1950. In Germany, Echinacea is one of the most widely used herbal products as a stimulant for the immune, lymphatic and circulatory systems.

Of the nine native North American species of the genus Echinacea the three best known are Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia and Echinacea pallida.

Echinacea purpurea is the easiest to grow and to propagate. When grown in full sun, it rewards the gardener with almost continuous blooms and armloads of long-lasting cut flowers. In our garden, its only enemies seem to be the rabbits. From the way they chomp it down to the ground our Sage Cottage bunnies have the healthiest immune systems of any in Washington County or perhaps the whole state of Maryland! Cultivars of E. purpurea commonly available include "Rubenstein," "Bright Star'" and the recent Perennial Plant Association's perennial plant of the year - "Magnus." There is also a white variety - Echinacea purpurea "White Swan."

Smaller in stature, Echinacea angustifolia has narrower leaves and the flowers are smaller and paler in color. This plant is more difficult to propagate from seed. It is the species most commonly listed first in medical references.

Echinacea pallida, with its long slender leaves and drooping petals (one seed catalog describes them as "spidery"), is the least cheerful-looking of this trio and to my mind the least interesting as an ornamental.

Coneflowers are fail-safe landscape plants. All types are drought resistant and will survive even in poor, rocky soil. The plants bloom steadily from July to October. In our garden, as soon as a flower fades we cut the stem to the ground and are usually rewarded with a whole new crop of blooms. Echinacea does not appreciate being crowded by weeds so resolve to be a diligent weeder or else mulch generously. The cone is attractive dried. It makes a strong statement in winter arrangements paired with common dock and the shiny black seed clusters of the blackberry lily (Belamcanda chinensis).

In the kitchen, coneflower is a bust in the flavor department although the flower petals may add a bright touch to salads and some desserts. They would not provider any therapeutic benefit or flavor.

This year, plant lots of coneflowers so you too can spend a magic moment with the butterflies.

The Herald-Mail Articles
|
|
|