As a member of the daisy family (Asteraceae), Echinacea, (Scientifically Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifoliia or Echinacea pallida) is known by several common names like Kansas snakeroot, black Sampson and Sampson root, but it is most commonly referred to as purple coneflower. It is grown in the eastern two thirds of North America and Europe. Echinacea grow in moist to dry prairies and open wooded areas. It can be taken orally as an herbal tea, or in tincture form. It can also be used as an herbal salve. Echinacea purpurea is the type primarily used for research and treatment, however, any of these herbs can be used. Long-term use has been linked with side effects and could interfere with anesthesia and certain medications. This information is not meant as medical advice and any medical questions or concerns should be addressed by qualified medical personnel.
This herb makes a beautiful addition to a perennial herb or flower garden. It is a drought resistant perennial herb that grows up to 4 feet in height. A healthy stand of coneflower will attract goldfinches and butterflies and it thrives in USDA plant hardiness zones 3-9. These purple flowers with cone-shaped centers bloom in late summer and attract butterflies and then finches when the seed head develops.
Echinacea can be started from plants or from seed. When it is started from seed, it will germinate better if the seeds are cold stratified. Mix the seed in a small amount of sponge damp sawdust, peat moss, or vermiculite, then place it inside a plastic bag or jar so the seeds will remain moist during the stratification process. Put the bag or jar in a refrigerator and keep it at a consistent temperature of 32-34 degrees F for 30 days. If the outside temperature will remain below 59 degrees F during the 30 days, the stratification can occur outdoors rather than in the refrigerator. Prepackaged pre-stratified seed will not need to be chilled in order to germinate.
After the stratification process is complete, plant the seeds at a depth of ¼ inch. The seeds will germinate in about 10 to 30 days at 65 to 70 F and should be ready to transplant in 30 days. The higher the temperature for both the seed and the seedling, the faster the seeds will germinate and the faster the seedlings will grow. It should be planted in its permanent outdoor location after the last predicted frost in the spring. Stems may be stronger and develop more flower buds when they experience cool temperatures of about 40 F after being planted outside.
This herbaceous plant will grow best in full sun to partial shade, with some shade being ideal. Like most plants, Echinacea grows best in pH neutral, well-drained soil. Place each plant at least 15 inches apart so air can circulate between them, but no more than 24 inches apart to help avoid spindly growth. Though they are drought resistant once established, they do need to be watered regularly throughout their first season. After the first year, avoid excessive watering to help produce better plants and prettier blooms. Echinacea will not need fertilizing, but will benefit from small amounts of organic compost during the early seasonal growth. Removing spent flowers, also known as deadheading keeps the plant blooming and prevents self-seeding. Once established, the plant is easy care and readily self-seeds in place if deadheading is not done.
This herb is often used as a treatment for colds, the flu and other respiratory infections. It boosts the immune system by stimulating cells called macrophages which then attack and consume invading organisms. Some people believe that Echinacea promotes the anticancer activity of natural killer cells making it a useful supplement for individuals receiving chemotherapy or radiation treatments.
Echinacea can be taken in capsule or liquid form and can be used as a fresh or dried herb to make tea. Most practitioners recommend milligrams per day, but you should not take it for more than eight weeks. Echinacea can also be applied to the skin.
Native Americans used Echinacea before the white man ever came to America. In the 1800s, Echinacea was commonly used as a natural remedy against infections and inflammation. As a topical salve it can be used to treat infections, bites, stings, eczema, psoriasis and other skin problems.
Although a few laboratory studies suggest that some chemicals found in Echinacea might increase the activity of certain immune system cells, human studies have generally concluded that Echinacea does not prevent, shorten, or relieve the symptoms of these infections. It should also be noted that some Echinacea products do not contain any of the herb and some of these products may actually contain harmful contaminants.
Do not use Echinacea if you are taking medications such as anabolic steroids, amindarone and chemotherapy drugs methotrexate and ketoconazole. It may also interact with other medications. Individuals with autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis or HIV should not take Echinacea, nor should women who are pregnant or nursing.
Side effects from Echinacea are rare; however, some side effects have been noted such as headache, nausea, dizziness, abdominal pain and constipation. Rashes may occur in children. Severe allergies can also occur, but rarely do. These include anaphylactic reactions including itching, swelling of the face or throat, wheezing and rash. Anyone with allergies to chamomile, ragweed, mugwort, sunflowers, chrysanthemums, asters, dandelions, zinnias, yarrow, sagebrush, tansy or other members of the Asteraceae family should be careful when taking Echinacea. You should report to your physician and pharmacist if you are using Echinacea or any herbal supplements.
After Echinacea has bloomed during the second year, it can be harvested for tea. Locate the topmost leaves that do not have any brown spots, insect bites or other blemishes. Choose flowers from the newest blooms and remove stems completely. Spread the leaves and flowers on a cookie sheet and place it in the oven on the lowest temperature setting to dry. A dehydrator can also be used. If it is hot outside, the herbs can also be dehydrated in a vehicile. Just be sure to protect the plants from the sunlight. The heat is needed but not the light. Once it has dried place it in a tin or glass jar. Store the herbal tea in a dark location so the Echinacea does not lose its potency.
Place 1/4 cup dried or ½-cup fresh finely chopped or crushed Echinacea flowers and leaves in a glass pint jar. Fresh Echinacea makes better tincture than dry, so if you have fresh leaves and flowers available, use them instead of dried. Add one cut vodka (60% with dried Echinacea and 80-100% alcohol with fresh Echinacea).
Instead of making tincture with leaves or flowers, the roots can be used. Grind one-cup of fresh roots with two cups alcohol and create a pulpy mush. Continue, as you would do with leaves and flowers. Fill a jar as completely as possible to keep out air and tightly secure the lid. Label it with the herb name, the date it was made and the expected maturity date of the tincture. Store it in a cool dark place for 4-6 weeks, occasionally shaking the contents for the next 30 days. The longer this solution steeps, the stronger the tincture will be. A dark brown color indicates the alcohol is absorbing the essential oils. After the 4-6 weeks, strain the vodka from the Echinacea by placing a layer of cheesecloth over a glass bowl. Allow to drain for a few minutes and squeeze the excess liquid from cheesecloth. Pour the tincture into dark glass jars, label and store them in a dark location.
To use the tincture, at the first sign of a cold or flu symptoms, take ½ to ¾ teaspoons 3-4 times per day. Echinacea will not prevent a cold or the flu. Do not take it for more than 8 weeks during a cold season.
To make an Echinacea salve to use in the treatment of insect bites, grind roots into a coarse powder until you have a cup of powder. Add enough 70% ethanol to dampen the powder and let it sit overnight. Blend in three parts fat to one part root powder or you can simply add olive oil. If you add a fat that is solid at room temperature such as coconut oil, lard or ghee, it should be melted first at a low heat and then added to the powder in the blender. Blend at a high speed for ten minutes then transfer the mixture to a double boiler, and heat it at a low temperature until the alcohol dissipates. This may take 1-2 hours. Removing all of the alcohol is not critical. A small amount left will act as a preservative.
Once the alcohol is removed, filter the mixture though cheesecloth and press the Echinacea infused oil from the Echinacea root powder. Discard the Echinacea root powder. Reheat the oil and add grated bees wax to create the desired consistency.