Few flowers are as striking as eastern purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). It has drooping lavender-purple rays surrounding a bright-orange conical center of tiny flowers that look like pins in a pincushion. The prickly appearance is acknowledged by the name echinacea, from "echinos," which is Greek for hedgehog. These distinctive and beautiful flowers are food for butterflies and birds, while its roots are prized for medicinal uses.
Native species of echinacea are being squeezed out of their home territories by overharvesting and habitat loss. Echinacea purpurea–known as Kansas snakeroot, comb flower and Indian head–grows in rocky prairie areas in open woodlands and along waterways. These perennials grow from 2 to 5 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet across. Still more endangered is the similar E. augistifolia, a more compact relative.
New growth emerges in spring, the best time for light fertilizing. Purple coneflowers are showy in the garden and make excellent cut flowers. They are both heat and cold tolerant. In most areas they bloom all summer long, sometimes from spring into fall. Coneflowers are drought tolerant and deer resistant. Divide roots every few years to keep plantings blooming well.
Flowers are showy, but useful. Butterflies and hummingbirds rely on echinacea as a nectar source. Don’t deadhead spent flowers. In winter, goldfinches can harvest the seed in a matter of days. Rabbits enjoy nibbling the flowers and foliage down to the ground level–a feast that can be deterred with hot pepper wax sprays.
The root of purple coneflower has long been used medicinally by the Plains Indians and folk medicine practitioners for many uses: painkiller, mild antibiotic, gonorrhea treatment, appetite stimulant and immune system booster. The roots of Echinacea purpurea roots are high in caffeic acid, while those of E. augustifolia roots are high in alkylamides–both substances said to provide strong immune system support. Purple coneflower plants must grow for three or four years to develop roots large enough to harvest.
You can harvest roots and propagate new plants at the same time. Winter, when purple coneflower is dormant, is the ideal time. You can carefully dig roots after leaves turn brown, gently wash them and remove most roots for use. Next, you can separate the crown by hand, creating up to five new starter plants. It is best to replant the divided roots as soon as possible.