Popularized as an herbal "antibiotic," Echinacea is commonly known as purple coneflower. American Indians used this indigenous plant to counter snake bites, fevers and infected wounds. The Plains Indians considered it to be among their most sacred plants. The early settlers adopted it as a cold and flu remedy. Eclectic herbalists lionized Echinacea but, with the advent of the AMA, it fell into disuse until resurrected by modern herbalists in the 1970s.
Antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties in echinacea make it useful in many acute and chronic conditions. It is helpful for those dealing with colds, flu, respiratory distresses, sinus infections, sore throats, swollen glands, arthritis, fever, infected wounds, vaginal infections, candida overgrowth, prostatitis, and urinary tract infections. It is also used effectively against chronic skin infections such as acne and eczema.
Echinacea is a supreme strengthener and supporter of the immune system, nourishing the body's own defenses. Echinacea activates leukocytes (white blood cells that combat infections) and increases the production of interferon, which helps protect non-infected cells.
Echinacea's antiseptic, antifungal, and anti-viral properties stop the spread of pathogens. A kindergarten teacher who constantly got colds took 30 drops of echinacea tincture daily, and had her first cold-free winter since she started teaching.
Echinacea strongly inhibits tumor growth. It is an excellent complementary medicine for those with cancer. Studies demonstrate echinacea's ability to preserve white blood cells in cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy. A dose (half the body weight is the number of drops of echinacea tincture) taken twice daily starting at least a week before treatment begins, and continued throughout, has kept several women in our community strong and resistant to the harsh side effects of radiation and chemotherapy. I believe echinacea helps inhibit future cancer growth and metastasis, so I say stick with it throughout treatments and for a year or two afterwards. Wise women use echinacea tincture for several days before and after dental X-rays or mammograms.
Echinacea exerts a special tonifying influence over the adrenal cortex, which is responsible for secreting more than 40 steroids used to regulate metabolism. The adrenal cortex helps make sex hormones too, so echinacea has been used as a remedy against impotence and as an aphrodisiac!
The immune-system-stimulating essential oil, echinacea, is found in all parts of the plant. Echinacein prevents germs from penetrating all kinds of body tissue and encourages broken skin to help faster by helping fibroblasts (the cells that form new tissue) to work more efficiently. I use echinacea root infusion as a wash, or the fresh roots as a poultice, or tincture in water to heal cuts, wounds, impetigo, herpes, canker sores, and prevent infection, too. The fresh roots, infused in oil, make an excellent healing salve.
The Delaware called echinacea yucci, and believed it would cure even the most advanced case of venereal disease within a week. Plains Indians inhaled the steam from boiling Echinacea to relieve headache, and used the roots to heal all poisonous snake and insect bites. Sioux treated those with rabies with echinacea roots and Kiowa and Choctaw chewed the roots ease sore throats and coughs.
To relieve a sore throat or swollen tonsils, we gargle with the warmed infusion (or 20 drops of tincture in half a cup of warm water), and we slowly swallow teaspoons of echinacea honey frequently throughout the day.
Studies done over the last 50 years in Germany, where echinacea has been widely used since the 1930s, suggest that it is most effective against acute illness when taken at the onset of symptoms, used frequently, and continued for several weeks. I take a dose of tincture every two to three hours for the first day or two. Then I take it 2-4 times a day until the symptoms subside, and sometimes for a week thereafter. To bolster my immune system when dealing with a chronic illness, I take 1-2 doses of echinacea tincture daily for a month or more.
Echinacea tincture is safe for babies, pregnant women, and nursing mothers. I use the same dose for baby and mother: one drop of tincture in water for every 2 pounds of body weight.
Some herbalists believe echinacea is contraindicated for those dealing with auto-immune diseases such as lupus, AIDS, or multiple sclerosis. Immunity-enhancing herbs such as burdock, dandelion, St.John's wort, hyssop, and garlic may be preferred.
Echinacea roots are often used alone, but I like to combine my roots with their leaves, flowers, and seeds in the tinctures I make. Immune-stimulating echinacein is present is present in all parts. When I open my wild heart and eyes to echinacea, I see all its parts work synergistically: The whole plant is more beneficial than just one part.
Three to four feet tall, with a dark, reddish-purple, sturdy stem and long, dark green, ribbed and pointed leaves, echinacea is a striking plant. The blossoms evolve from bud to emerged flower to ripened seed head over many weeks. Pinkish-purple petals point up in the bud, down on the seed head, and straight our in full flower, rimming the center as it changes from a flat green button to a huge, orange dome. Echinacea vibrates with the colors of immunity.
I keep a piece of echinacea (root or flower) in a magical pouch to support my ability to remain true to myself. I take echinacea flower essence to help maintain my strength and hold my ground through turbulent and challenging changes.
Of the five common species of echinacea, only two, angustfolia and purpurea, are abundant enough to use. Both varieties have immune-enhancing properties, but only angustifolia holds them in dried form. Angustifolis commonly grows in the cold prairie lands of North America. The seeds need at least a 60-day cold stratification before they will germinate.
Purpurea is easier to grow than angustifolia, and readily self-seeds. It also appreciates a period of cold stratification, but a week or two will suffice. I seed beds with purpurea seeds in the fall or the springs, or start them in flats indoors for later transplanting. They grow large and tall, with a multitude of flowers, when planted in a humus-rich soil. We add compost to our beds before transplanting echinacea seedlings. The plants need to grow for at least two years (preferably three or four) before they are ready to dig for medicine. You can pick all you want of the leaves and flowers though, even in the first year. We start new echinacea beds each year, so that we have plenty of 3-4 year old roots ready for digging every fall.
I gather echinacea leaves while they are green and vibrant and the flowers at their peak, tincturing them together while fresh. I dig echinacea roots in the fall, tincturing them in alcohol or vinegar or infusing them in oil or honey. I gather echinacea seed heads when they are mature, dry some to save in an airtight container until time to plant them, tincturing the remainder. I dry echinacea roots whole on screens to use on infusions.