PURPLE CONEFLOWER (Echinacea purpurea) is one of my all-time favorite flowers and medicinal herbs. Originally an American prairie heirloom, it is one of the very best for attracting butterflies. This showy and easy to grow plant brings welcome color to the late summer garden. Grows well in full sun or light shade and blooms heavily from July to September (here in NC, they bloom even in November after two hard frosts). Grows well in clay soils. Plants reach 3-4' tall. Perennial. Hardy to zone 4. 50 seeds will give you plenty of babies in subsequent seasons.
MEDICINAL PROPERTIES: Echinacea in all its forms has been studied for its purported immune system stimulant properties. Definitive studies come out almost every year on one side or the other of the argument, but my personal experience is that this is an effective and benign natural medicine. There are many native echinaceas in a spectrum of colors and variety of forms. It has also been hybridized and I encourage you to grow only the original open-pollinated varieties. For teas, you will want to harvest some roots and some flowers and leaves. The more potent root of the plant should wait harvesting until your plants are well-established (1-2 years). Then just take the smaller, thinner roots, leaving plenty to nourish the mother plant and re-plant. As long as you don't decimate the plant, it will actually thrive with such harvesting and actually LIKES to have its flowers cut for your pretty vase! It encourages more blooms. Wash and thoroughly screen dry the flowers and roots before storing for tea. For a wonderful colds/flu fighting tea combine a teaspoon of dried echinacea with a small, peeled slice of fresh ginger in a tea ball and steep, covered in your cup for 5 minutes. No honey needed, but can be added if desired as long as it is raw honey.
GROWING TIPS: You can direct sow Echinacea in early spring as soon as the soil can be worked and while frosts are still common or in late summer about 60 days before you first frost. Otherwise, you will need to stratify the seeds. Seed stratification is the process of pre-treating seeds to simulate natural conditions that a seed must endure before germination. Many seed species have what is called an embryonic dormancy and generally speaking will not sprout until this dormancy is broken. One simple way to stratify is to put the seeds in some damp sphagnum moss, put the mass in a plastic bag and place it in the crisper drawer of your fridge for a month.
TO SAVE SEEDS: I'm not going to kid you - these are a pain (literally) to get out of the prickly seed heads, which is why I have raised my price a little bit. You must thoroughly dry the seed head, then (wearing gloves) gently crush the prickly head extracting all the prickles. The seeds sit deep down in the head. They are the cone-shaped, not the other shaped which look like seeds but aren't.