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.