NAMPA—If you were like many Americans who suffered from the common cold this winter, you may have reached for a soothing cup of Echinacea tea to ease your symptoms.
Echinacea is one of the more colorful and unique seed crops grown in the Treasure Valley. Also known as the purple cone flower because of the way the flower’s petals turn downward and form a coneshaped head, it has long been used as a boost to the immune system to fight colds, flu and infections. It is also thought to help with inflammation and speed wound healing.
For the past 25 years, Canyon County farmers Cleo and Barb Miller have been growing echinacea, one of a number of seed crops and other crops they raise. The echinacea is hard to miss when it’s in full bloom during July, with the tall purple flowers standing tall.
“We like it because it’s so pretty,” Cleo said. “That’s why we like to grow it. It’s been a good crop for us.”
Cleo said he currently farms about 80 acres of echinacea, and as far as he knows, it’s just him and one other farmer growing the flower in the valley.
Echinacea is a perennial, so it doesn’t require yearly replanting, Cleo said, and he can usually get four or five years of production out of one planting. The shoots are starting to come up now, and will bloom in July. Irrigation, spraying and hoeing for weeds is an ongoing part of the growing season.
They continue to irrigate until after the stalks are brown and the flowers look dead.
“A normal person looking at it is thinking, ‘what are they doing?’” Barb said with a laugh. “Long after it’s pretty they keep watering.”
The extra irrigation is to ensure development of the seeds. In October, they harvest the flowers, first cutting them then letting them lay in the field for 10 days before combining. The seeds are tough, Cleo said, unlike many flowers with seeds that shatter or fall out.
“The cone is really tough,” he said.
The medicinal part of the echinacea plant is the root stalk, but because the Millers are raising a seed crop, their focus is on the cone. The rest of the plant goes back into the ground after harvest.
Cleo estimates they have a yield of 300 to 600 pounds per acre. Their seeds are bought by seed companies in Denver and Oregon, and from there many of the seeds are exported to Europe.
The Millers have been farming since Cleo took over his family’s operation in 1969. Over the years they have grown sugar beets, peppermint, wheat, sweet corn and many seed crops, including carrot, onion, radish and many types of beans. Echinacea is not the only flower they have grown, either.
“He used to grow cosmos and they are real pretty, too,” Barb said. “Before that he raised sweet William, so he’s raised flowers for a lot of years, at least 30 years.”
Cleo said the climate in the Treasure Valley is conducive for seed crops, because of the dry weather in the fall. Also, Idaho is a blight-free state for beans, so it’s an ideal place to grow beans for seed.
The corner of Greenhurst and Midland in Nampa has long been one of the places where Cleo has grown the flowers, but the owner of the land recently sold it to be developed as a subdivision.
“I look out there and I get really sad,” Barb said of the construction happening in front of their house. “We knew this day would come.”
They will continue to grow the flowers as long as they can and enjoy the beauty of them. Their fields have provided a backdrop for several of their grandkids’ senior portraits, and others have used the fields for wedding portraits and other photo shoots.
“We’ve enjoyed watching all the pictures being taken out there,” Barb said.