Cultivation in Europe

Echinacea (Asteraceae), a North American genus of 11 recognized taxa, is of great contemporary economic and scientific interest. Three species — Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia, and Echinacea pallida — show potential pharmacological activity and have economical value all over the world.

Echinacea is a relatively new genus in Europe. First, these species were introduced as decorative plants and later, from about 1930 to 1960, they became very popular as medicinal plants. As evidence of their medicinal value became clear, supplies derived from wild native American plants did not meet the increased demand. Thus, research efforts today are directed at establishing the best methods for cultivating Echinacea species in Europe and North America. More than 15 countries now have cultivation and production facilities.

From the several Echinacea species, the most studied and well known is the purple coneflower (E. purpurea), the species that has been most fully domesticated thus far. Several articles and books have been written on the biological activity, chemistry, and medicinal effects and uses of Echinacea (), but the literature is sparse concerning cultivation and agrotechnical issues for the genus. Information on cultivation methods, yield components, and effects on biomass productivity and chemical components is very limited. A few papers dealing with agrotechnical issues were published recently in scientific and practical journals and in national herb cultivation handbooks.

The history of the cultivation of Echinacea in Europe can be divided into several periods. The first period started when Echinacea was first introduced into Europe as a garden perennial for its decorative qualities. John Banister introduced it into English gardens before 1699. The earliest written report on Echinacea appeared in the 18th century, when the genus was described in the Horticultural Lexicon by Miller in 1776 as Rudbeckia purpurea (equivalent to E. purpurea). The first cultivation methods were described by Reichenbach in 1833. Echinacea-based drugs appeared in the European literature at the end of the 19th century. The first reports on medical utilization of Echinacea appeared in 1898 (E. purpurea) and in 1897 (E. angustifolia) ().

In the second period, 1920 to 1940, several articles referring to Echinacea as a homeopathic herb were published in Germany (Schwabe, 1924). When the German companies Madaus and Schwabe started to use Echinacea as a medicinal plant on a larger scale, cultivation activity began on an equally large scale.

In the third period, 1950 to 1980, cultivation of Echinacea expanded to meet the increasing demand of medicinal manufacturers. Commercial cultivation began in Germany in Mittel-Unter-franken by Madaus and Schwabe, and in Inning and Weber-Ammersee by the Vogel company.

Facilities for cultivation were also established in Bocourt, Switzerland, by Spagyros, in Roggwill, Switzerland, by Vogel, and in Elburg, The Netherlands, by Biohorma Ag. Others were set up in northern Italy (Sudtirol-Gardasee) and in Yugoslavia and Spain (Boehringer-Ingelheim Company). A summary of all these cultivation methods and techniques on Echinacea can be found in Heeger (1956), and later by Ebert (1982).

Because of morphological similarities but vague taxonomical definitions, there was much confusion in the identification of species. In 1939, Madaus ordered seeds of E. angustifolia from America. The plants grown from those seeds later proved to be E. purpurea. This might be one of the main reasons for the intensive product development and research into E. purpurea in Europe.

The fourth period began in the mid-1980s when detailed taxonomical and agrotechnical research was carried out mainly in Germany. The first formal research on E. purpurea was done in S weibheim. Later, long-term and basic agronomic research was carried out at Bayerische Landesanstalt fur Bodenkultur und Pflanzenbaues in Freising. Published results generated increasing interest in Echinacea in other European countries. Agronomic research and commercial cultivation extended into several European countries, such as Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia. Finally some Nordic countries also initiated research on Echinacea. The interest in Echinacea can be seen from the number of publications on Echinacea species in agriculture. According to the available literature, 61 manuscripts were published from 1951 to 2002. These statistics include only articles and monographs focused exclusively on Echinacea, and do not include handbooks of herb cultivation or general articles in which Echinacea is one among other herbs, such as in the paper by Bomme and Wurzinger (1990). In the 1990s, the number of publications increased, which paralleled equally intense research activities. Research activities in other countries increased as well during this period.

Cultivation in Europe: Agrotechnical Research of Echinacea

Cultivation Areas In Europe

Collecting data on the cultivation area of Echinacea in different European countries is difficult because the plants tend to be grown in small and scattered plots. Hence, there are no data available in national official statistics. For example, in Germany the total cultivation area for all Echinacea species was reported to be 178 ha in 1999, and only 85 ha in 2000. The cultivation area of E. angustifolia in France was reported to be 17 ha in 2000, and the total area for all species in 2002 was reported as 45 ha. On the other hand, cultivation regions are often located in close proximity of manufacturers of Echinacea products.

The estimated planted area of the three main Echinacea species in Europe is 250 to 300 ha. The biggest areas are in Germany, totaling 85 ha. A total of 30 to 50 ha are under cultivation in Italy, France, Poland, and Hungary; 13 to 20 ha in Sweden and Holland; and 3 to 5 ha in Switzerland, Spain, and Finland. Echinacea growing areas have increased significantly in Italy, from less than 10 ha in 1989 to 35 ha in 1999.

The producers of Echinacea are quite various. There are farms and cooperatives producing raw materials only for commercial marketing or directly for processing industries. Some companies are only marketing Echinacea products while others are vertically integrated, involved from field cultivation, to processing (drying, extraction, product manufacture), to marketing.

In the recent European marketing survey book, E. purpurea is the most often used Echinacea species in Europe (Table: Companies in Selected European Countries Specialized in Echinacea species Cultivation, Processing, and Trade). Company representative interviewees did provide separate reports on E. pallida. German companies dominate Echinacea product manufacturing in Europe.

Table: Companies in Selected European Countries Specialized in Echinacea species Cultivation, Processing, and Trade

Country Company Activity
Belgium Bioagrico BVBA C, T
France Sicarappam T
Tortay Freres (Ets) T
Hungary Agroherba Kft C, T
Germany Berghof Hrauter GmbH C, P, T
Agrimed Hessen W.V. C, P
Heilpflanzen Sandorf GmbH & Co.KG C, P
Institut Drachenhaus P
Madaus AG C, P
Phytochem Referenzsubstanzen P
Rieger-Hofmann GmbH C, T
Jurgen Serr Herb-Service GmbH & Co.KG P, T
Gartnerei Winter C
Great Britain Bioforce Ltd. C
The National Herb Centre C
Italy Chialva Nicolao s.a.s P
Norway Norsk Oko-Urt BA C, P, T
Switzerland Phytomed AG C

C = cultivation; P = processing; T = trade.

According to recent interviews carried out by Aiello (2002), the most important commercial product of Echinacea species is the dry root (Table Prices of Echinacea Products). The prices of E. purpurea and E. pallida in European countries in 2002 ranged between 6 to 8 euros/kg, while that of E. angustifolia was about 10 to 15 Euros/kg. The prices of the fresh and dry herb products vary by country and by company.

Table: Prices of Echinacea Products, Eurodollars/kg or CHF/kg, c. 2002

Country Product E. purpurea E. pallida E. angustifolia
Germany Dry root 7 7 13
Italy Dry root 6-8 6-8 10-15
France Dry root 9.15-10.6
Spain Dry root 6-9
Switzerland Dry root 22 CHF
Finland Fresh whole plant 1.5-1.8
Poland Dry root 1.5

Europe: Different Cultivation and Production Forms of Echinacea

Echinacea in Europe: Species and Cultivars in Cultivation

Ecology

In Europe, Echinacea grows well in the southern and central regions to southern Scandinavia without overwintering problems. However, central and northern Scandinavia seems to be the Nordic limit of its growth. The differences in ecologic requirements among species are not great.

Soil

In Poland, Echinacea is grown in soil with a pH of 6.5 to 7.2. In Finland, E. purpurea and E. pallida, but not E. angustifolia, were successfully cultivated in soil with a pH of 5.5 to 6.2. E. angustifolia grows best in a more alkaline soil than the other Echinacea species, that is, a pH of approximately 8 appears suitable (Foster, 1991).

Echinacea is best suited to well-drained, moderately rich soil types, and an average sandy loam. Plants will not grow well in poorly drained soil. In Finland, overwintering problems have occurred in plain soils with long-term standing water. From the practical point of root harvest, sandy soil that can be easily washed from the roots is desirable. Soil with stones is undesirable.

Light

For optimal growth, Echinacea plants need full sun, but E. purpurea can tolerate up to 50% shade. E. angustifolia is an open plains plant that grows best in hot sun, whereas E. purpurea is a woodland plant that does not flourish under direct sun.

Water

Given their original natural habitats, it is not surprising that Echinacea species are well adapted to dry growing conditions in Europe. In cultivation, they are an exceptionally drought-tolerant species and stand up to such conditions better than any other perennial.

Differences in drought tolerance are based on their morphology. E. purpurea has large, moisture-containing leaves and hair-like roots. E. purpurea lives near forests, and requires higher moisture content in the soil than E. angustifolia and E. pallida. E. angustifolia and E. pallida have narrower and hairy leaves, and deep taproots. Therefore they tolerate drought better. These differences must be kept in mind when choosing a locale for planting. In Hungary, growing E. purpurea in the northern parts of the country, where the precipitation is more regular, has been proposed.

Temperature

In their native habitats, Echinacea species are frost-resistant and winter-hardy perennials, and they can tolerate -25°C to -40°C temperatures, provided there is snow cover. In Europe, they safely overwinter in all parts of South and Central Europe. In 1995-1996 during a season of abnormally low winter temperatures (-21 °C), good overwintering was reported even from Ayr, Scotland, at latitude 55° N.

Scandinavia is the northern limit of its commercial cultivation. E. purpurea overwinters in southern Sweden well, but not in Norway. According to observations in 43 Norwegian localities, temperature alterations were detrimental and overwintering was not safe.

Echinacea overwintered quite safely in southern Finland at Nordic latitudes of 60° to 61°. However, from overwintering, problems occurred mainly after the first year of cultivation, when the seedlings were not well developed (weak growth, late transplanting time). During the 1984-1994 period, winter damage was observed four times after the first winters.

For successful Echinacea cultivation in the northern regions, mesoclimatic conditions (continuous snow cover, no standing water) and early transplanting of strong, well-developed seedlings are very important. Under optimal conditions, commercial cultivation has been practiced near the Arctic Circle at Oulunsalo (at the 65° N latitude) in Finland.

Cultivation of Echinacea in Europe: Field Practices

Bertalan Galambosi “Cultivation in Europe” (2004)