Chestnut Herbal School

Green-headed Coneflower, Sochan

Rudbeckia laciniata in bloom

I first met this beautiful plant as “Green headed coneflower” while exploring the rivers of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. I had learned about using its roots as an immune stimulant, similar to Echinacea roots, from my teacher, Michael Moore. I was camping and felt the first whispers of a possible cold so I decided to nibble on some of the freshly dug root to see if I could head off the cold. The cold stayed away and my respect for this plant as a medicine grew. Rudbeckia laciniata, also called Cut leafed coneflower, is a member of the Asteraceae, or Sunflower family. Closely related to Echinacea, botanists used to place both genera in the Rudbeckia genus. It is a hardy perennial growing to five feet with alternate, roughly hairy leaves and yellow clusters of flowers in late summer.

Green-headed coneflower growing in the southern Rockies in New Mexico

My dance with Green headed coneflower continued when I met a Cherokee man who told me about Sochan, an abundant wild green relished by the Cherokee people. We didn’t have a chance to walk in the woods so I was left wondering about the identity of this wild green. It wasn’t until a couple years later when another friend cleared up the mystery and pointed to Sochan growing alongside a trail in the Pisgah Forest of North Carolina. I was so surprised to learn that this medicinal native was also edible! The first time I cooked up Sochan, sometimes pronounced “Sochani,” I was pleasantly surprised with its overall good zesty taste and mild Echinacea undertones. Sochan is still favored by the Cherokee people who sometimes cook the leaves with poke (Phytolacca americana) and creasy greens (Barbarea spp.) or other wild greens. Note: Poke requires special cooking to render it edible. Daniel Moerman reports in his Native American Ethnobotany that the San Felipe people of New Mexico ate the young stems like celery.
After picking and preparing Sochan every time I could get my hands on it, I decided I wanted to invite it home. I gathered some seeds in the fall and planted them the next spring in my greenhouse in starter trays. I planted the seedlings in a sunny streambed and in full sun perennial beds, and now have a fresh supply of Sochan greens in my back yard. Apparently I’m not the only one with this idea as the Cherokee often grew it in informal gardens.

Emerging Sochan shoots, which resemble many poisonous plants

Last summer on a trip to New England I started seeing ornamental cultivars in many cottage gardens and even photographed it in Central Park. Apparently it is becoming a localized weed in parts of England, where it has escaped from cultivation. I have also seen it growing abundantly in the flood plains of rivers in the Midwest. It also grows in the Rockies from New Mexico to Canada from 5,000 to 8,500 feet. There are cultivars available with showier flowers from native nurseries; one multi-petaled variety is called hortensia. Rudbeckia laciniata grows alongside trails and roadways in part shade, in wet meadows, and alongside streams and rivers. Green headed coneflower may be found in all of continental United States with the exception of California, Oregon, and Nevada.Green headed coneflower can be tricky for the beginning forager to identify. It has a distinct taste and smell that reminds many people of a carrot family member. Since the carrot family has some poisonous plants in it, it is extremely important to get to know this plant well before you harvest it. Its flowers are borne in loose clusters and have yellow drooping rays with a green head in the center (hence the name). Its leaves are variable in shape; starting at the base they are pinnately compound; moving further up the stem they become deeply three-lobed, and become simple towards the flower. The leaves feel roughly hairy on the upper surface if you rub your fingers down towards the base. This sand paper-like texture is especially evident if you rub your fingers down the very outside edge of the leaf. The undersides of the leaf are smooth with a slightly silvery sheen best seen by twisting the leaf in the sunlight.

Sochan in bloom

Easiest to recognize when it is flowering, you can identify patches in the late summer, and come back in the spring, when the plants are low to the ground, in their basal rosette stage. I recommend watching this plant for a season or two and walking with an experienced forager or botanist until you are very familiar with it. Then you can begin to harvest and enjoy it.The tender spring greens are the most relished parts. If you pick only some of the leaves off an individual plant, it will quickly regenerate and send up new leaves in their stead. As the plant begins to send up a stem, I still pick the tender new top leaves but they begin to have a stronger flavor and can be a little more fibrous as the season progresses.I like combining Sochan with other greens, and steaming, sautéing, or adding them to soups. I find its stronger flavor is nicely offset with milder-tasting wild or cultivated greens. The way most Cherokee prepare them today is by boiling the tender spring greens in water for a couple of minutes and then pouring off the water and frying them up with oil and seasoning. The Cherokee dry the greens to keep them through the winter; they may also be preserved through freezing.

Medicinally the root of Green headed coneflower has a rich history, having been used by midwives in the southwest, Eclectic physicians in the early 1900s, and many Native peoples. Michael Moore wrote about the uses of the root in Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, “it stimulates secretions, respiration and the skin and kidneys.” He also speaks to its use as an emmenagogue and birth aid, “The root of Rudbeckia laciniata has a history of use for painful menstruation in New Mexico, and in fact has been recommended by parteras (midwives) when Inmoratal is unavailable and birthing contractions have slowed or stopped prematurely.” He used the root as an Echinacea analogue with much success due to its immunostimulatory nature. It is also a diuretic and expectorant. The Chippewa used a poultice of the blossoms to treat burns and the Cherokee used an infusion of the root for indigestion. L.S. M. Curtin writes in her Healing Herbs if the Upper Rio Grande that Dormilon, the Spanish name for Rudbeckia laciniata, is used by the Mexican-Americans of New Mexico to treat gonorrhea and as an “emmenagogue for female trouble.” Interestingly, they make a strong tea of the dry or green leaves for this purpose.
Since the herb is an emmenagogue it is contraindicated in pregnancy except as a birth aid.
I would like to add, though, that I have heard Cherokee women eat the greens throughout their pregnancy to increase their iron levels. Perhaps parboiling it and pouring off the water renders it safe to eat in pregnancy. If anyone has more information on this subject, please write to me at Juliet@chestnutherbs.com.This sweet plant is a permaculture poster child as it is an easy to grow perennial native, beautiful, medicinal, and edible. From Steamboat Springs to New York City, the mountains of North Carolina and the banks of the Mackinaw River, I have been blessed and nourished to be in the presence of this wondrous and giving green friend.
 

10 thoughts on “Green-headed Coneflower, Sochan

  1. Hello Juliet,

    I am so happy to have found your wonderful article about Sochan. Thank you for writing it.
    I live in central North Carolina and would like to try growing this plant.

    Will you please recommend a type of Sochan for this area? Also, I would like to form a plant guild with this plant. Will you please recommend some other plants that will compliment Sochan in my garden?

    I am thinking about growing some at the lowest part of my property where there is a shallow drainage ditch. The area is about 50′ long and 20′ wide. It gets a lot of sun there so if you recommend it I might have to plant some complimentary shrubs. The area is just below 10′ from my septic leach field so there is another aspect to consider. I have read where people graze chickens on their septic leach field and also where people grow sunflowers on their leach field because the root system is so shallow and the seeds are high off the ground. If you have any suggestions I would highly appreciate it.

    Thank you,

    Jim

    Elon, NC

    • Hi Jim,

      You can purchase Sochan seeds from Prairie Moon Nursey and germinate them yourself or try to find live plants in a local nursery. Plants from a local native plant nursery would be best suited to your region, so that would be ideal.

      If you want to add Sochan to a plant guild, it really depends on what sort of habitat you are growing in. For a wet meadow, skullcap and blue vervain could be good companions. Along a stream in part-shade, yellowroot would do well. Experiment with other plants that are well-suited to your specific growing conditions!

      I do not have experience with leach fields, but I would not recommend planting food or medicine in an area that has septic runoff.

      Happy gardening!

      • Hi Juliet,
        Thanks for the info and the link. I contacted Prairie Moon Nursery and here is their reply.

        “Hi Jim,

        Sochan often grows in the same place as honewort, which I’m sure fits nicely into your edible forest garden. In a wet, open woodland in WI, I’ve seen it with sneezeweed, angelica, and jewelweed.

        http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/savanna/plants/cl_coneflower.htm
        The above link is to a favorite website of mine and includes a list of what insects Sochan attracts. While it’s IL specific you may still find the information useful.

        Since Sochan is not a legume, I don’t believe it’s a nitrogen fixer.

        Best wishes,
        Heather”

        • Very helpful, thanks! I will just add that nitrogen fixation is a common trait in the legume family, but there are certainly other non-leguminous plants out there that also fix nitrogen. Enjoy your garden!

          • Excellent thank you Sara….
            I would like to go ahead and order some seeds this week. Will you or perhaps someone else on this forum please recommend a couple of nitrogen fixers, nutrient accumulators and mulch plants that I could plant with Sochan? I live in the piedmont region of North Carolina.
            Best wishes for a peaceful year….

  2. Alexander Meander says:

    I got online today looking for more information on Sochan, and was a bit surprised to not find it at PFAF.org, although not terribly surprised, since Sochan is native to here and the research at PFAF was/is done in Britain.

    Anyway, so I searched google for more information on Sochan and not much seemed to be coming up that was along the vein of what I was looking for. UNTIL I found your post here in the search engine. Thanks so much for writing this article and giving me an idea of its medicinal properties, which is mostly what I was after.

    I also obtained seeds to grow Sochan at OGS over the weekend and am super excited about that.

    Oh, and Juliet, to try to put a face with an internet post, it just so happens that I was sitting behind you at the Humanure Revival, next to the beautiful red head that sat to my left. I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time. Followed that up with Doug Elliot and my stomach was sore from laughing!

    I had no intention of typing so much! Again, thank you so much for the article!

  3. Mollie Curry says:

    Thanks for sharing your stories and knowledge, Juliet. I just got some seeds from the seed swap at OGS and was looking for how to grow them out.

    • I think they will germinate without any special treatment but if you want to ensure a better germination, I would put the seed in damp sand in the frig for two weeks before planting them out. If you arent familiar with stratification, read the article on propagating medicinals under the medicinal herb gardening section. Have fun Mollie

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