The purple cone flower. Echinacea purpurea (Asteraceae). Echinacea comes from the Greek word echinos meaning hedgehog in reference to the spiny center cone. It's a simple, but beautiful bloomer from as early as June to fall, with a bloom that attracts bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects (always welcome). The dead flower stems will remain erect well into the winter and, if the flower heads are not removed, they will attract goldfinches who perch on or just below the blackened cones to feed on the seeds. This unique plant grows fairly high, up to 3 feet to get some height above nearby grasses. Common in prairie beds, it can be found throughout much of the Midwest. It does well in the cold but doesn't like overly wet soils.
Luckily, they are easy to grow from the seeds. Plant the seeds in early spring, as soon as the soil can be worked, and when you still expect another frost or two. Sow the seeds 1/4" deep and 2" apart. When you've got a bunch of seedlings at least an inch tall, thing them to 18" apart. Rabbits and hedgehogs think new echinacea shoots are the perfect breakfast treat, so you will need to protect the seedlings if your beds are frequented by the little critters. Since Spring is long past, you could still pick some up in most commercial garden centers.
Echinacea has been widely used by Native Americans, particularly the Plains Indians, for hundreds of years as an antiseptic, an analgesic (pain killer) and for the treatment of snakebites. Echinacea is also used extensively by herbalists to boost the immune system, help speed wound healing, reduce inflammations, treat colds and flu (though once you get the flu a tincture of thyme works better as it's a natural expectorant) and fight infection. It is NOT recommended for those with autoimmune disease (only a doctor should recommend any herbs for such issues), pregnant women or children, as there just isn't enough studies on those groups taking it. But I have found that using a tincture at first sign of a cold, usually reduced my sick time by half, without having to make a trip to the immediate care.
A growing collection of scientific evidence now supports Echinacea's contribution to stimulating the immune system due to a rich host of polysaccharides and phytosterols, unique to this plant. While there are studies indicating that the whole plant has medicinal virtues, (which is why I'm including harvesting information for the whole plant) it is traditionally the root that is used. Herbal remedies are not intended to replace trained medical care, especially if you have children. But they can provide a host of health benefits and in the absence of medical care, due to a disaster of some sort, may prove to be a blessing.
For medicinal purposes, you'll want to harvest some roots and some flower tops. For best quality, experts say to wait until the plants are about 3 years old and harvest in the fall when the tops have gone to seed and the plants have seen a hard frost or two during their lifetime. The tops should be harvested just as the flowers start to open. Whether harvesting the tops or roots, the dried herb is good for a year and should be marked and discarded if not used by then.
To Harvest the roots:Cut off a portion of the root, leaving plenty for the plant to grow on. (aren't you happy you keep those sharp knifes handy? Cut into pieces small than one inch. (large ones may have mold growth during the drying process).
Wash thoroughly and gently pat dry with clean towels.
Lay them out on screens in a well-ventilated area away from direct sunlight. The larger pieces may take several weeks to dry depending on humidity levels. Don't overcrowd them.
When completely dry, store in tightly covered glass jar in a cool place away from sunlight.
Lay the tops on a screen or bundle and hang upside down out of direct sunlight. Don't overcrowd them as air circulation will help the process.
When completely dry, the leaves will crumble to the touch.
Store in a tightly sealed glass jar in a cool place away from sunlight.
To find out more about making tinctures, salves, syrups, antiseptics, sprays, and many other simple remedies with this handy plant, see Growing and Using Echinacea by Kathleen Brown. It's a great little book for less than $4 and has a lot of good information. We made a tincture with half a cup of dried herbs and vodka in a pint jar and it lasted through multiple cold/flu seasons).