Echinacea is one of the most widely known of the medicinal herbs. Originally from the prairies of North America, this crop can now be found growing in a range of countries around the world. Echinacea is known for its striking purple coneflowers and its important medicinal attributes.
Herbalists claim this plant will help with things such as the immune system (making the user more tolerant of colds), as an anti-inflammatory, and as an aid in wound healing. Native Americans used echinacea to treat snake and insect bites.
Although there are nine species of echinacea, only two have been grown on a commercial basis. These are the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) with a fibrous root, and the narrow-leafed purple coneflower (Echinacea augustifolia) with a tap root.
The entire echinacea plant is medicinal and is a potent tonic for the immune system – especially when the root is dried, ground and used in high doses. However, the flowers, leaves and seeds are also healing. Echinacea is widely revered and used for its immune-stimulating, anti-bacterial and anti-viral qualities.
Echinacea enhances resistance to colds and the ‘flu’, and is used for septicaemia and skin complaints. It is also used as an antiseptic for burns, wounds and skin ulcers.
Echinacea is a commodity crop, so is susceptible to the rise and fall of market demand. There is export potential of a high-quality product to the main consumer markets in Europe.
Planting should begin in a greenhouse, where seedlings become established. After three to five weeks, they can be moved to a plot and transplanted into a well-prepared bed. Crop establishment should take place in spring. Planting in rows 20 cm apart has been proved to be sufficient in trials held in New Zealand and Germany.
Echinacea needs at least three years to grow before root harvest, however, harvesting of leaves and flowers can begin in the first year when the plants are in full blossom, if they have been planted early enough. Leaving enough flower and leaf growth is important to developing the root system, so selective harvesting of 10–20 percent of flowers and leaves is the recommended amount.
Using transplanted plugs seems to be the best way to get an echinacea crop established. However, direct seeding is possible if good pre-sowing herbicides and stale seed beds are used. An ideal spacing seems to be around 20–30cm between plants, giving a final density of around 10 plants per square metre.
After crop establishment, little is needed apart from water and weed control.
After planting in the spring, the crop is left to grow for the summer period. Although there are no firm rules for this, in general the following autumn the crop is cut off at ground level and these tops dried for sale. The plant then overwinters as a root before coming away in the spring. In the second autumn, the tops are cut again and dried for processing before the roots are lifted. Friable soils mean this is a relatively easy job. Dirt is washed from the roots and they are dried for sale using low-temperature driers.
For harvesting the flowers and leaves in the first season, manual cutting with a field knife will be required to ensure viability of the plant for the following season.
After preparing the ground and planting, most work on an echinacea block will be done mechanically. This means requirements for a tractor, harvest machinery, bins, etc.
Echinacea grows in a wide range of climates and soil types all over the world. There are no special climate requirements as the plant is fairly drought and frost resistant.
Echinacea grows best in full sun and well-drained loamy soil. For good yields, however, it needs a good soil type, and adequate water will ensure quality harvests. Soils with high clay content should be avoided as it makes the washing and preparation of roots for drying more difficult and could affect the quality of the root. The ideal pH level sits between 5.5 and 6. It can benefit from top-dressing fertilisers which should be ascertained through annual soil testing during its several years of growth.
Echinacea does best if the roots are kept moist with a combination of rainfall and irrigation. Overhead watering is the best method for this crop, as it is grown on a broad acre scale. Irrigation is needed in the early stages and a consistent water supply increases growth, but once the plant has been established, it is typically drought-tolerant.
Starting with a clean seedbed is the key to success with this crop. Echinacea germination is slow, meaning weeds can easily smother the crop. Using transplant seedlings is one way to get around this problem, even though it does add to the production cost. Once established, echinacea is a competitive plant that will out-compete weeds.
No research is available for nitrogen leaching of echinacea, but it is not considered to be high. Any land use change to echinacea planned for the Lake Rotorua catchment would need to be modelled for nitrogen leaching.
Pests and diseases
Very few insects and diseases affect this crop.
Experience in the United States suggests echinacea plots may yield between 1.1–5.0 tonnes per hectare of dry root product after two years, and echinacea leaf may yield 1.6–1.8 tonnes per hectare after two years.
It is very difficult to estimate financial returns for New Zealand-grown echinacea. The global market for echinacea in 2012 was estimated at US$320 million, although it is unclear how accurate this figure is. Growing a high-quality product, marketing off New Zealand’s ‘clean green’ image and finding niche markets will be the key to success.
Echinacea, Venture Southland (http://www.venturesouthland.co.nz/Economic-Development/Regional-Projects/Agriculture-and-Food/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/242/categoryId/205/Echinacea-Echinacea-spp)