Since the 1990’s, this herb has seen a tremendous popularity as an immune stimulant. This same popularity has reduced the native populations to an all-time low, earning a placement on the United Plant Saver’s At-Risk list. Educating individuals and corporations to not wildcraft or harvest wild species is a beginning. Teaching about sustainability, how to grow your own plants, and where to purchase this herb are important as well. I will touch on all of these points in the following paragraphs. Native Americans introduced this natural healer to the settlers, and it was considered an important herb for wounds, infections, blood poisoning, and poisonous bites and stings. Echinacea was included in the first edition of King’s American Dispensatory in the 1850’s, and many subsequent herbals, or materia medica since then. (1)
Sustainability means using methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources. Once a resource is mentioned to the public as being endangered, or at-risk, it is up to us as a society to ensure the survival of that natural resource for future generations. Being listed as an endangered species, Echinacea should be included in sustainable practices. There are nine native species of Echinacea, but three species are used medicinally. There are differences in the amount of chemical constituents; however, they are used interchangeably. The Echinacea species are herbaceous perennials with alternate leaves that are rough. They are part of the Aster or Sunflower family, which consist of a composite head of many florets (disk) with colored ray flowers surrounding the disk giving the appearance of a single flower. The ray flowers can be different colors ranging in varying shades of purple, or pink. Many hybrid and cultivated species are different colors, but are not considered for medicinal purposes. Bloom time is anywhere from June – September. Echinacea species grow easily in average, well-drained soil; and are adaptable to heat, humidity, drought, and poor soil conditions. They prefer full sun, and average watering. Echinacea angustifolia is considered a native of the Great Plains, and is sometimes called Narrow- leaf coneflower. It usually grows up to 2 feet tall with lanceolate-shaped leaves, and light purple or pink composite heads which measure about 3 inches. This plant is hard to grow from seed, but with the right conditions, it will germinate. Echinacea purpurea is native to the Eastern U.S through the Midlands, and is sometimes referred to as Eastern purple coneflower. I have both of these species in my garden, and find that the E. purpurea self-seeds easier in our area. It grows up to 3 feet tall, and has oval leaves that are coarsely toothed. The bristle tips of the flower disks are orange, and the ray flowers range in color to a deeper purple, pink, or magenta. Echinacea pallida is larger (up to 40”) with drooping, spindly rays of pale purple which gives it the common name of Pale Purple Coneflower. I personally love to grow Echinacea in my gardens, and leave the flower disks for the winter. Finches love to feast on the seeds. If you prefer to cut the flowers to bring in the house, be sure to leave some to go to seed; thus, ensuring future plants for harvesting.
Native American tribes ranging from the Plains to the Eastern U.S utilized Echinacea for its healing abilities. It was used as an analgesic for pain on toothaches, sore necks, sore gums, or sore throats. A poultice of the chewed roots would be applied to many swellings, wounds, and sores. It was used to increase saliva, for eye troubles, septic diseases, and other poisonous bites or stings. The juice was used as a wash for burns as well. The Crow and Cheyenne chewed the root as a cold remedy while the Delaware combined Echinacea with Staghorn Sumac root for venereal diseases. (2) According to root doctor and herbalist, Tis Mal Crow, Echinacea is one of the Muskogee Seven Sacred Plants. He says, “Echinacea can be made into a tea, a tincture, or chewed and applied directly to wounds as an excellent drawing agent. It is used for snake bites and venomous insect bites including black widow spiders, brown recluse spider bites, and bee stings. It is also used to draw the poisons out of sores, boils, and abscesses.” (3)
Echinacea is considered an alterative (blood purifier), tonic, diaphoretic, sialagogue (increases saliva), antiseptic, and an immune stimulant. I believe that Echinacea wasn’t utilized traditionally as an immune stimulant because the immune system wasn’t understood until the late 1800’s. They didn’t worry about taking herbs when they were healthy to prevent sickness. They took herbs when they were sick. We now understand how the immune system works, and why Echinacea stimulates the immune system. (5) Dr. Christopher states, “Echinacea is a very effective blood purifier, and it’s a powerful and stimulating antiseptic and anti-putrefactive agent”. (4) It is used for blood poisoning, boils, eczema, chronic ulcers, tonsillitis, inflammations, pus formation, infections, and colds/flu. There are herbalists that agree on Echinacea’s ability as an aphrodisiac, and its help for sexual impotence from hormonal imbalances due to its tonic action on the adrenal glands. I, however, have not had the opportunity to see this in action as of yet, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t try it for those situations. Numerous studies, and past experience by alternative methods have proven that Echinacea has the ability to help with the harsh side effects of chemotherapy and radiation; as well as, having cytotoxic effects on cancer cells. (6,7,8). Echinacea also helps to combat upper respiratory infections, and helps with inflammation.(9) It contains echinacoside that is a natural antibiotic with broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity, and echinacein that counteracts the germs’ tissue-dissolving enzyme, and keeps them out of the body’s tissues. That same echinacein also helps broken skin knit faster by spurring the cells that form new tissue to work more efficiently. (1) Anytime my family gets sick, I reach for the Echinacea and Golden seal combination to both stimulate the immune system to fight the invaders, and help destroy the virus/bacteria causing the problem. I have always noticed a reduction in the duration compared to others suffering from the same sickness. I have also been able to treat myself and my family without antibiotics by using that combination to start with. I prefer to take the tincture when needed, butI make a glycerite (extract using vegetable glycerine) for my children because it doesn’t have the alcohol plus it tastes better so they will take. Of course, we can always chew the root! Richard Cech states in Making Plant Medicine, “A small piece of the fresh or recently dried root may be held in the mouth and slowly chewed. This is as effective as any fancy preparation, a practice that comes to us from the original American herbalists, the Native Americans.” (10) I couldn’t agree more! You know you have a good quality Echinacea when you chew it, or take a quality extract and get a tingling sensation in your mouth.
Purchase Echinacea from reputable sources that follow sustainable practices. Make sure that the herb was harvested from a farm, or cultivated from a wholesaler that provides this herb from their own fields. Never purchase if it says “Wildcrafted”. When you harvest Echinacea from your own garden, you will want to dig the root in the fall from a 4 year old plant or older once the plant has started dormancy. You can use either fresh or recently dried roots for your herbal preparations. Collect the leaves or flowers at the peak flowering time, and use either fresh or dried. The dried herb does not last long in storage, so fresh preparations are usually preferred. You can take 2 ounces up to 4 times a day of the infusion, one tablespoon up to 6 times a day of the decoction, and ½ to 1 teaspoon up to 3 times a day of the extract or tincture. You should never take Echinacea for more than 7 days at a time. Give yourself 3 days without it, and then you can go back on it for 7 days if needed. Never take it every day for preventing a disease. I know some people afraid of germs that took it every day. This is not a good idea because your body gets use to the herb, and it will no longer work. Better to get the correct nutrition through your diet, get your exercise, and wash your hands for preventative measures. If I know that a strain is going around the workplace, school, or area, I will take 2 Echinacea capsules 2 – 3 times a day. If I ended up with that strain, I will take 4 capsules 5 times a day until I feel better. There is some debate on taking Echinacea with autoimmune diseases, but there is no sufficient data to support this. To be on the safe side, use with an autoimmune disease should only be done under the supervision of a qualified health practitioner. Echinacea is considered an herb safely consumed when used appropriately.
1.) Castleman, Michael. (2001), The New Healing Herbs, Emmaus,PA: Rodale, Inc.
2.) Moerman, D.E. (1998). Native American Ethnobotany. Portland, OR: Timber Press
3.) Tis Mal Crow (2001). Native Plants Native Healing Traditional Muskogee Way, Summertown, Tenn: Book Publishing Company
4.) Christopher, John R. Dr (1976). School of Natural Healing, Springville, Utah: Christopher Publications.
5.) Immunomodulation mediated by a herbal syrup containing a standardized Echinacea root extract: A pilot study in healthy human subjects on cytokine gene expression, Dapas B, Dall’Acqua S, Bulla R, Agostinis C, Perissutti B, Invernizzi S, Grassi G, Voinovich D., Phytomedicine, 2014 May 27
6.) Management of gastrointestinal mucositis due to cancer therapies in pediatric patients; results of a case series with Sanitol, Bertoglio JC, Falatre I, Bombardelli E, Riva A, Morazzoni P, Ronchi M, Petrangolini G., Future Oncol. 2012 Nov 8(11):1481-6
7.) Cytoxic effects of Echinacea purpurea flower extracts and cichoric acid on human colon cancer cells through induction of apoptosis, Tsai YL, Chiu CC, Yi-Fu Chen J, Chan KC, Lin SD., J Ethnopharmacol, 2012 Oct 11, 143(3):914-9
8.) Cytotoxic activity of polyacetylenes and polyenes isolated from roots of Echinacea pallida, Chicca A, Pellati F, Adinolfi B, Matthias A, Massarwelli I, Benvenuti S, Martinotti E, Bianucci AM, Bone K, Lehmann R, Nieri P, BrJ Pharmacol. 2008 Mar 15: 879-85
9.) Bactericidal and anti-inflammatory properties of a standardized Echinacea extract (Echinaforce): dual actions against respiratory bacteria, Sharma Sm, Anderson M, Schoop SR, Hudson JB, Phytomedicine. 2010 Jul 17(8-9):563-8
10.) Cech, Richo. (2000), Making Plant Medicine, Williams, OR: Horizon Herbs Publications