by Dena Nishek
The prairie's sturdy purple coneflower is a good addition to any garden or medicine chest. Native Americans used echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) for a variety of ills including snakebites, respiratory infections, wounds and poisonous insect bites. They taught the settlers how to use the plant, which made its way into the colonists' herbal repertoire. In the late 1800s, an exuberant salesman touted an herbal extract featuring E. angustifolia as a "miracle cure" for rattlesnake bites and many other conditions. His garish and exaggerated marketing helped define "snake oil remedies."
Eventually, in the 1920s, serious interest from a Cincinnati pharmaceutical company put echinacea in the majority of American medicine cabinets. This herbal remedy was the most popular and effective product for colds and flu until antibiotics-despite their ineffectiveness against colds-bumped echinacea out of the spotlight. Minor respiratory infections are still treated predominantly with echinacea in Germany, where more than a million prescriptions for the herb are issued each year.
The coneflower's appearance gives clues to its medicinal properties: lance-shaped leaves, strong stalks supporting purple-pink flowers with prickly centers. You sense that this plant is tough-a protector. In fact, echinacea is best known for boosting immunity and curtailing colds and flu symptoms.
The Immune System Enhancer that Tingles
The taste of echinacea is first sweet, then bitter, with a tingling sensation. The tingling isn't harmful and indicates a fresh and potent product. It has been suggested that this sensation stimulates lymphatic tissue in the mouth and initiates an immune response. Both animal and test-tube studies show that the polysaccharides (types of sugar units) in echinacea can increase antibody production, raise white blood cell counts and stimulate white blood cell activity. White blood cells attack disease-causing microorganisms. Another study found echinacea could considerably increase production of another infection-fighter, T-lymphocytes. Some researchers speculate that the herb behaves like the body's own virus-fighting chemical, interferon. This chemical helps cells resist infection. In a laboratory test, echinacea protected cells from exposure to the influenza and herpes viruses. It appears that echinacea does boost immunity, but exactly how is yet to be discovered.
Other studies suggest that if you are prone to getting sick, taking echinacea regularly can slightly reduce your chances of catching a cold. Generally, though, echinacea is more effective if taken immediately at the onset of symptoms to ward off a cold or reduce its severity than it is when taken as a long-term preventative. At the first sign of an ache or sniffle, take 3 to 4 mL of echinacea tincture three times a day. There are other forms of the herbal remedy available, too. If you prefer capsules, take 300 mg of a powdered extract three times a day. If you prefer echinacea juice, take 2 to 3 mL three times a day. If you are making a tea or decoction, use 1 to 2 teaspoons of whole dried root per cup of water. Bring the roots and water to a boil and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Drink a cup of this tea three times daily.
Even at the high doses recommended for the onset of a cold echinacea appears safe-no toxic effects have been reported. Germany's Commission E considers the water-alcohol extract of E. pallida root and the fresh plant juice from E. purpurea safe and recommends them for mild upper respiratory infections. Don't take echinacea if you have a progressive systemic disease such as multiple sclerosis, HIV infection or another autoimmune disease. Also avoid echinacea if you are sensitive or allergic to sunflowers. As with all herbal medicine, it is best to consult with your health care provider prior to use.
A Pretty Garden Statement
Whether you want to grow echinacea for your own medicinal supply (not a bad idea since wild echinacea is being overharvested in many areas) or you just want to add a new perennial to your garden, this flower is easy to grow. Its garden popularity is surging so you can probably find plants at nurseries and farmers' markets. Alternatively, you can grow echinacea from seed, but don't expect flowers in the first season. Native to the American prairies, echinacea can grow two to three feet tall. It will grow in poor soil, but thrives in a fertile, well-drained spot. The stout bristly stem supports leaves that taper at both ends. Each stem bears a flower with 12 to 20 pinkish purple rays surrounding an orange-brown conical disk. White varieties are also available. Echinacea will bloom from June to October depending on location and conditions. The dead flowers add interesting texture to the winter garden and will set seeds for new plants. Remove the dead flower heads if you want to prevent reseeding.
Every four or five years your echinacea plant will probably have to be divided. The best time to split a large plant into two is after it has flowered. You can dig up the whole plant, cut the root ball in half, add new soil to the hole and replant half and relocate the other. Leave enough time at the end of the season for the plant to reestablish itself before winter.
To harvest echinacea roots, dig them up in fall after the plant has died back. Use only two- to three-year-old roots and make sure you leave enough behind to insure growth for the next season. Wash dirt off the roots, cut them into strips and dry them in a spot away from sunlight. A food dehydrator will work, too. Roots are fully dry when they are brittle. Chop them coarsely and store in an airtight glass container away from heat and light.
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