Echinacea Production

Introduction:

Echinacea purpurea and angustifolia are both commonly known as the purple coneflower. Although it may be boring to some, with a few brave souls daring to call it a weed, the purple coneflower can be found decorating perennial gardens or serving as a beautiful cut-flower throughout the world. E. purpurea is grown commercially for a multitude of purposes, one of which being herbal remedies. Recently, products containing E. purpurea have been reaching record sales. In the United States E. purpurea has a market share of 9.9% of the medicinal herbal industry (10). Consumption of Echinacea is becoming increasingly higher in Europe and the U.S. with Germany boasting more than 300 Echinacea products available for their consumers. In 1994 more than 2.5 million prescriptions were written for Echinacea.

Most production occurs in the United States and Europe, with Canada slowly gaining speed. Echinacea stimulates the immune system, and thus can be seen taken to prevent and fight colds, coughs, sore throats, infections, and inflammation (2). Further research is being conducted worldwide to determine and document the immuno-stimulatory, antiviral, and antibacterial benefits.

With the above said, and with further reading, we hope to demonstrate why in 1996 Echinacea was voted one of the top 10 best selling herbs (3).

Taxonomy and Botany:

Family:
Asteraceae (Compositae); The Daisy Family

Genus: Echinacea

Species: purpurea, angustifolia and pallida

The Asteraceae family has daisy-like flowers aggregated into tight heads, with the leaves being either opposite or alternate, and simple or compound (6). There are 31 genera making up this family, the most well known being Achillea, Coreopsis, Dahlia, Liatris, Rudbeckia and Zinnia.

There are 9 Echinacea species, all of which are native to North American prairies (6). E. purpurea is distinguished from other species by its oval coarsely toothed leaves, flatter disk, and the orange-tipped bristles on the flower heads (10). E. purpurea stands 3 feet in height and blooms from June to October. Popular cultivars include ‘Alba’, which is pure white, ‘The King’, a dark red, ‘Nana’, which is pink and stands only 1 foot high, and ‘White Lustre’, a creamy white. ‘Magnus’ stands out for having horizontally radiating flower petals that are carmine pink to red. Most other species and varieties have strictly pendulous petals. E. angustifolia has narrow petals. E. purpurea, angustifolia, and pallida are the 3 species used for medicinal purposes.

History:

Echinacea is derived from a Greek word meaning "hedgehog", apparently referring to the scales of the receptacles, which tend to be prickly (6). Along with the name Echinacea, cultivation of this beauty is an age-old tale. Various species of Echinacea have been used for centuries by Native Americans. Primary uses being cold prevention and also as a topical application for snake and insect bites (3). In 1887, Dr. John King included Echinacea in his book The American Dispensatory, a guide to various medicines. Echinacea was popular among medical professionals in the 19th century. John Uri Lloyd, a Cincinnati pharmacist famous for his research on herbal medicine, often recommended Echinacea (3). By the early 20th century Echinacea had lost its popularity and had vanished from U.S. medicine. In the 1930’s the German doctor Gerhard Madaus came to the U.S. to collect seed from E. angustifolia. Dr. Madaus was the founder of Madaus AG, a leading herbal medicine manufacturer in Cologne, Germany. Interestingly enough, when he returned to Germany he accidentally returned with E purpurea seeds, instead of the angustifolia. This "mistake" resulted in Echinacin, a preparation of juice from the flowers, leaves and stems (3). Alkylamides, caffeic acid derivatives, polysaccharides and polyacetylenes are the most important active ingredients in Echinacea. Concentrations of the above vary with species, with a range of .1% (E. angustifolia) to 2% (E. pallida) in the roots. The essential oil components are sesquiterpene derivatives, borneol, and alpha-pinene (1).

Propagation:

Echinacea can be propagated by seed, through crown division, or by using 4-5" root cuttings. Tissue culture is being tested and will hopefully be available for a more convenient use. Seeds seem to be the best choice since the roots are the commonly harvested part of the plant. Stratification of the seeds is recommended for a more uniform germination (10). Seeds sown in the fall after ripening will germinate the following spring. To get ahead, seeds can be started in the greenhouse in fall and be blooming by April for early spring sales. This is more for the sale of the entire plant for garden purposes, not for plant products.

Cultural Practices:

Echinacea is a relatively easy to grow, tolerant, low maintenance plant. For production purposes, whether you are focusing on the roots or the flowers, optimizing your conditions is the obvious plan to attain the best plant possible. High fertilization is not recommended when growing Echinacea for its roots because the result would be excessive vegetative growth with a fairly weakened root system (8). A balanced fertilizer low in nitrogen with adequate phosphorous and potassium is recommended. Site selection should always be considered when making fertilizer recommendations. Organic fertilizers such as bone meal, clover, and composted manure are excellent choices, as well as such minimal input such as alternating a green crop with the Echinacea.

Echinacea grown in the greenhouse and transplanted into the field in spring has provided better results than the direct seeding approach (9). If directly seeding into the nursery, it may take two years to achieve an Echinacea plant hardy enough to sustain field conditions, whereas starting them indoors nearly cuts this time in half (9). Greenhouse production, although initially an expensive investment, would be an economically practical and fruitful choice (8).

When Echinacea is ready for field planting the recommended spacing is as follows:

  • 12" between each plant (on either side)
  • 5 rows/bed
  • 12" between beds

*This will result in approximately 30,500 plants per acre on average, in a 4-year rotation.

Echinacea do extremely well in full sun in a moderately rich and well-drained loam or sandy loam soil. They prefer a slightly alkaline pH of 6-7. They are drought tolerant but like most plants will do better with additional soil moisture. Again the need for this irrigation is dependent upon the initial site selection.

Weed control will lead to better plant growth. Plastic or bark mulch is highly recommended as an efficient organic weed control (5). If needed, there are herbicides registered for the use on Echinacea. These include Metolachlor, DCPA, Oxadiazon, Pendimethalin, Oryzalin, and Terbacil.

Very few disease problems exist in Echinacea production. The only known pathogens include two bacteria which cause leaf spots, Cercospora rudbeckii PK. And Septoria lepachydis Ell. & Ev. and Phymatotrichum omnivorum (Shear) Dug, a fungus that causes a root rot. Three viral pathogens have also been shown to infect Echinacea; cucumber mosaic, broad bean wilt and mosaic (5). Most Echinacea is grown organically, so most disease counteract ants are, of the most part, preventative measures.

Following reliable and clean cultural practices is by far the best option. Such practices include removal of diseased debris to prevent pest overwintering, and aeration of the plantings by means of less dense plantings to decrease the occurrence of fungal problems are the best options. Other minor pests of the purple coneflower are Japanese beetles and Pratylenchus penetrans, a nematode, which has shown to cause a 10% annual loss in some regions (5).

It is not yet known when the best time to harvest is. It is common for roots to be harvested in the fall after the first frost. Plants are usually allowed approximately 2 years to establish in the field before a root harvest takes place. They are then washed and air-dried. The flowers and leaves are harvested at various stages (depending on purpose) but there is no documentation of the effects that leaf harvesting has upon the growth of the root system.

Final Product:

Echinacea for the consumer arrives in health food stores and pharmacies in a multitude of ways (9). Some growers process extract from their crops and develop their own brands. This form will most likely be found in health food stores. If these brands are successful the growers will then buy crops from other small growers to meet the heavy demand. Large crops are generally sold to processors who then produce various types of extract to sell to large pharmaceutical manufacturers. The final forms are capsules, liquid extract or tincture, which is then bottled under the manufacturers’ label.

Utilization:

Echinacea is used in a variety of ways. As an ornamental the plant is chosen for its toughness, beauty, and fragrant flowers. Because it is a native plant, it can be used in the landscape to naturalize areas, keeping the beauty of the Midwest alive. It can be used to attract butterflies to your garden, as a specimen plant, to create a prairie or a bog, or just a beautiful addition to a wildflower meadow. It is sold by nurseries and native seed sources. Echinacea can be bought in containers, bare root, or as seed.

All Echinacea cultivars make excellent cut flowers. These can be used in fresh or dried arrangements.As a medicinal product Echinacea comes to the consumer as dry-root, in capsules or tablets, as an extract, or as a tincture.

Economics:

Echinacea production promises to be an increasingly profitable business. Consumers are buying excessive amounts of "natural health remedies" with Echinacea being the favorite pick. There is very little information on the actual cultivation of Echinacea, which suggests to some that this is a rather "closed door" system, when in fact it is most likely due to the relative new nature of this crop. Growth of Echinacea farming, although promising, is actually rather slow. The current lag is possibly due to the following two factors:

  • The time and labor involved in growing and marketing knocks many potential farmers out quite quickly.
  • It takes several years for a grower to establish a reputation for a quality product and steady production (8).

There is also very little easily accessible published information on this crop and because of this growers seem to keep reinventing the wheel. Popularity of medicinal herbs has led to demand outstripping knowledge. Government agencies and banking institutions have yet to catch up with the alternative healthcare trend. Standardization of herbal remedies is the key to guarantee quality to the consumer (9). In time it is hoped that specific guidelines will be spelled out for manufacturers and growers alike. Standards and shared knowledge will open the doors to numerous research opportunities to produce larger quantities for the growing interest. The need for high quality perennial flowers in the market is also growing. Echinacea is easy to produce with little maintenance requirements. The plants are hardy to zone 4 and are tolerant of varying soil types, which widens the choice for site selection.

Conclusion:

Echinacea purpurea and angustifolia have both received raving reviews by consumers as the "plant that has it all". As a medicinal herb, it has become a best seller, and is known worldwide as an effective immunostimulant. From the landscape to the greenhouse and on to your medicine cabinet, this plant promises to become a highly profitable investment for your pocket as well as for your mind.

****Preparation of a Tincture****

  • Harvest roots in 2nd season
  • Use 1 ounce crushed dried herb steeped in 5 ounces of alcohol for 6 weeks (Grain alcohol is used by Herbalists, but vodka or brandy will suffice)
  • Store in a dry space, shaking the bottle every few days (4).
References

Bauer, R. and H. Wagner. 1991. Echinacea species as potential immunostimulatory drugs. H. Wagner and N.R. Farnsworth (eds.). Econ. Medicinal Plant Res. 5: 253-321.
Bomme, U., J. Holzl, C. Hessler, and T. Stahn. 1992. How does the cultivar influence active compound content and yield of Echinacea purpurea (L.) Moench with reference to its pharmaceutical use? I. Results of one year’s cultivation.
Bayerisches Landwirschaftliches Jahrbuch. 69: 1149-164.
Brown, D.J. 1996. Herbal Rx for the immune system: Echinacea can help fight off a myriad of ills. (The Herbalist).
Vegetarian Times. 229. pp. 92-94.
Franklin, C. 1996. The doctor’s healthful garden. Better Homes and Gardens. 74:3. pp. 62-66.
Li, T.S.C. 1998. Echinacea: Cultivation and medicinal value. Hort Technology. 8:122-127.
Still, S.M. Manual of Herbaceous Ornamental Plants. 1994. Stipes Pub. Co. Ill.
Wolfe, J. 1996. Natural-born healers. Men’s Health. 11:3. pp. 68-69.
Growing Echinacea - An Overview: http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/wwwpb-archives/ag/echin499.html
Echinacea - Western Ag Research Center: http://ag.montana.edu/warc/research/horticulture/echinacea.htm

by: Courtney Tchnida, Pratiti Gliorh, Sandra Michel and Suzanne Wold