Echinacea - Purple Coneflower
Echinacea, or Purple Coneflower, is a member of the daisy family. It is native to North American prairies and open woodlands. There are nine species within the genus Echinacea. The most commonly used for medicinal preparations are E. purpurea, E. augustifolia, and E. pallida. All varieties are perennial and easy to grow, making them a good beginning for someone starting a medicinal garden. In my opinion, no medicinal garden is complete without some of these beauties.
E. purpurea or Eastern Purple Coneflower, is the most popular as a cultivar. It is shrubbier in appearance and will grow up to 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide. This variety does not have taproots, like most other species.
E. augustifolia or Narrow Leaved Purple Coneflower or Blacksamson Echinacea is a bit more spindly than the E. purpurea, and will only grow 1-2 feet tall.
E. pallida or Pale Purple Coneflower, is similar in structure and appearance to E. augustifolia, but it grows slightly taller, 2-3 feet tall. Like the E. augustifolia, they grow in long stemmed clumps, making them good for cutting.
It is better to grow seedling indoor and transplant once they are about a foot tall. Seedlings make a good meal for grasshoppers and slugs, their only real predators. They also have a hard time competing with weeds, and do not do well with mulch, as it holds too much water. Echinacea attracts pollinators such as bees, butterflies and if the cones are left during the winter, they will attract birds.
Well known for its anti-microbial properties, it has become the most recognized medicinal herb. Which, unfortunately, because of its demand on the herbal market, it has been over harvested in many areas of the country. It is so easy to grow, that every medicinal garden should have Echinacea. (Did I already say that?)
All parts of the plant are used, although each has a slightly different chemical composition. The flowers and stems are the most commonly used medicinally, which are higher in polysaccharides that stimulate the immune system.
There is debate over which compounds within Echinacea are the most beneficial, but it is most likely a synergistic relationship between them all that gives Echinacea its medicinal qualities. (which is the case with most herbal medicines)
It is also good to note that wild collected herbal supplements may have been mis-identified. There is another plant, Parthenium integerfoium, which looks the same, but has no medicinal value. Another good reason to grow your own.
Native Americans throughout North America have a long history with Echinacea. Although we think of it as preventing the common cold, the Native Americans used it primarily to treat the symptoms, like sore throat, headache, cough, and fever, and to shorten the duration of the cold.
Treatment of the common cold is definitely the most common use for Echinacea. The key is to begin taking the herb as soon as you feel your symptoms (cough, runny nose, sore throat) coming on. Like many other herbal cold treatment, the herbs active ingredients need a strong functioning immune system to work. Once you are days into a cold, it may be too late to stimulate and strengthen the weakened immune system. It is best taken as a tea, several times a day, until symptoms are gone. How does it work?
Antimicrobial (Bacteria, Viral, and Fungi)
As an antimicrobial that can affect bacteria, viruses, and fungi, echinacea can be used for a variety of infections including: respiratory, urinary, candida, herpes, skin infections, and preventing infections in wounds. The Native Americans wound grind the roots and mix into a paste with water and apply it to skin infections and wounds.
Echinacea was traditionally used by the Native Americans to relieve the swelling and inflammation associated with injury, specifically insect and animal bites. Not planning on playing with any snakes, well it can also be used to reduce the inflammation of arthritis, muscle pain, acute burns, and acute tendon injury (sprains)
Dosage and Preparations
There are several ways that you can take your beautiful Echinacea bounty and use it or store it. You can use it fresh, dry it, or make tinctures. Because so many parts of the plant are medicinal, and making a tea (which you can out of just the leaves and flowers) out of the whole plant can be a little difficult, I like to make tinctures.
The flowers can be harvested during their bloom and hung upside down to dry. You can then vacuum seal them and store them in the freezer until you need them. Remember that the active ingredients in the leaves and flowers if fragile and once picked they need to be dried in a dark room (sunlight will destroy them), and then after packaging, be kept in a dark, dry place.
The roots are collects in the fall, after the growing season, usually after the first frost. Dry them, also, in a dark and well ventilated room.(remember on the E. augustifolia, and E. pallida have tuber roots.) Don't be in a hurry, they normally take a couple of days to dry (If you are impatient, you can cut them and dry them in a dehydrator.) Once dry, (and make sure they are fully dry, or they will rot in the bags), you can vacuum seal them, or seal them in dark bags and store in a dry place. If you have air tight class jars, those will also work if stored in a dark place.
For the best potency you should wait until the plant is 3 years old before harvesting the roots.
The Fun Part (Making Medicine)
This is probably the most practical for the majority of gardeners. You cut and dry the flowers and leaves, and when you want you add them back to some warm water, and enjoy. The only downside to tea is that they tend to have the least amount of medicinal properties, although they do have some. Teas from the flowers and leaves are pleasant and mild in flavor.
Decoctions are a concentrated tea (if you have ever taken bulk herbs, this is the way you have made them). They are most often made with the root of the Echinacea plant. They are very strong in taste, and are often used as a medicine not as an enjoyable beverage. "A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down." Just like the fun saying, a little bit of raw honey may make the drink a little more bearable for those you just can't take the herbal taste.
Buying tinctures in the stores, if you are capable of making them on your own, is a waste of money. They are often very expensive, and the quality can sometimes be questionable. I prefer to make my own when I can. The use of alcohol not only preserves the medicinal qualities, but extracts and concentrated it. A Tincture will also keep its medical effectiveness longer than a dried herb will. Tinctures are easier to store and transport, and can be packed about in emergency kits. Alcohol based tinctures can have a shelf life of 3 years.
Topical ointments are easy to make and use, if you have already made a tincture.
Contraindications and Precautions
When taken correctly Echinacea is a safe herb, but there are some conditions and times when it is not appropriate.
Echinacea and Pregnancy
Echinacea is considered safe to take during pregnancy, if taken correctly. To date, the only major study done to test the safety of Echinacea for pregnant women was published in a 2000 issue of "Archives of Internal Medicine." This study examined the effects of Echinacea on 206 pregnant women, including 112 who took the herb during the first trimester. Women taking the herb did not have an increased risk of having a miscarriage or fetuses with defects as compared to women who did not take Echinacea.