Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Echinacea: Reclaiming this powerful plant


Botanical name: Echinacea angustifolia, E. purpurea, E. pallida

Family: Asteraceae (Aster)

Common names: purple coneflower, Rudbeckia, Kansas snakeroot, hedgehog, black sampson

Parts used: whole plant, flowers, roots, leaves

Properties: cool and dry, immunostimulator, sialagogue, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, vulnerary, lymphagogue, alterative, anti-pyretic, circulatory stimulant

Used for: infected wounds, colds and flu, acne, boils, abscesses, septicemia, mouth infections, warts, venomous bites, fevers

Plant preparations: tincture, tea, decoction, mixed with clay, mouth wash, poultice

‎"Under the older classification of remedies, echinacea would probably be classified as an antiseptic and alterative. Strictly speaking, it is practically impossible to classify an agent like echinacea by applying to it one or two words to indicate its virtues. The day is rapidly approaching when these qualifying terms will have no place in medicine, for they but inadequately convey to our minds the therapeutic possibilities of our drugs." 
King's American Dispensatory 1898

King’s American Dispensatory is an Eclectic materia medica book first published in 1854. Echinacea boasts quite a long entry in this book and it certainly was a darling of the Eclectics. Reading the above quote we can see the author was very opposed to simplifying one of their greatest herbs to an “antiseptic” and an “alterative”. 

That kind of makes me wonder if they are rolling over in their graves now that their beloved herb has been mass marketed around the world as the “cold and flu” herb. 


Echinacea is endemic to North America and before it was over-harvested it grew abundantly through the east to the middle of the continent. First used by many native tribes in a wide variety of ways, it became an official part of the botanical medicine in the 1880‘s. Its use became popularized and within decades it was considered one of the most important herbs in practice. 

Were people impressed with its ability to fight off a cold or flu? 

Actually, the first popularized use of echinacea was for rattlesnake bites! 

Historical references say Dr. Meyer had learned about using Echinacea for snake bites from a Native American woman. He then experimented with it for a number of years before going to John King and John Uri Lloyd with his findings. He claimed he had treated 613 cases of rattlesnake bites in animals and humans using his special blend of herbs (Echinacea, hops and wormwood). At first he was brushed aside and ridiculed for making such outrageous claims. 

Dr. Meyer offered to send John King a rattlesnake so that he could experiment with treating animals who had been bitten. Dr. King declined. Dr. Meyer then offered to travel to Dr. King and allow himself to be bitten by the snake to prove the efficacy of his herbs in person. Dr. King again declined, but the persistence of Dr. Meyer inspired him to take a closer look at this plant. 

Although Dr. Meyer didn’t get bit by the rattlesnake in Dr. King’s presence, there are reports of him willingly submitting to this venomous reptile in order to prove his remedy’s effectiveness. In 1919 the Eclectic physician Ellingwood reported that Dr. Meyer willingly injected himself with the venom of a rattlesnake on his right hand. After six hours significant swelling had reached his elbow. He then dosed himself with his blend of herbs, taking them both internally and externally, went to sleep and woke up four hours later to find the pain and swelling was gone. 

In this day and age, if you are hiking through rattlesnake country, certainly take your echinacea tincture along for the ride. If you happen to get bitten by this venomous creature, take your echinacea tincture liberally - on your way to the hospital. 

Echinacea - some serious medicine
Dr. Meyer popularized Echinacea through his rattlesnake exploits but he also claimed it could cure a wide range of ailments. Besides ameliorating the bites and stings of venomous creatures (including snakes, scorpions, spiders, bees, etc) he also used it for serious infections like typhoid and malarial fever, cholera, trichinosis, and what would later be known as strep. He used it for a variety of “bad blood” conditions such as boils, carbuncles, acne, hemorrhoids, eczema and abscesses. And yes, he even used it for what could be cold and flu symptoms, nasal and pharyngeal catarrh. 

Sounds too good to be true? 

During this time in history it was common to sell “snake medicine,” patented medicines making claims of outrageous miracle cures. And it was for this reason that Dr. Meyer was at first brushed aside as a quack. 

But after the Eclectic physicians really started to work with Echinacea, all of Dr. Meyers’ claims were proven true. 

For twenty to twenty-five years, echinacea has been passing through the stages of critical experimentation under the observation of several thousand physicians, and its remarkable properties are receiving positive confirmation... All who use it correctly fall quickly into line as enthusiasts in its praise. 
Ellingwood, 1919

Echinacea angustifolia with a tiny little spider. Can you see it?
The Eclectics later wrote extensively about Echinacea and used it for many of the same ailments that Dr. Meyer did, as well as rabid dog bites, rheumatism, syphilis, uterine infections, vaginal infections, gonorrhea, blood poisoning and cerebral meningitis. They also used it for prolonged infections due to poison ivy/oak poisoning. 

Pretty amazing for a plant pigeon-holed as the cold and flu herb! 

How does Echinacea work? 
Undoubtedly Echinacea works in a myriad of ways that we can only begin to comprehend. But modern science has been able to figure out some of the miraculous ways of this magical plant. 

One way that it works is to increase phagocytosis. Phagocytosis means “to devour” and is an immune response that includes the engulfing and destruction of micro organisms as well as damaged or old cells and other cellular debris. This is a major way that the immune system removes various pathogens, bacteria and other cellular debris. 

Eclectics considered Echinacea, above all, to be an alterative. In his book on Echinacea, herbalist Paul Bergner says of alterative, “The term comes from the word “to alter,” meaning to change the composition and quality of the extracellular fluid and blood.” He then goes on to quote Dr. Harvey Felter as stating, “If there is any meaning in the term alterative, it is expressed in the therapy of Echinacea.” 

Herbalists also classify Echinacea as a lymphagogue, which means it promotes the flow of the lymphatic fluids and can also include the process of phagocytosis. 

Bergner maintains that Echinacea not only promotes the flow of lymph and stimulates the immune system at the level of white blood cells but that it also promotes blood circulation. So it not only increases the actions of the immune system, it also delivers those natural defenses to the area where it is needed. 

When you taste Echinacea you’ll immediately notice a tingly sensation on your tongue followed by profuse saliva. This action is called a sialagogue. By promoting the flow of saliva, Echinacea can address mouth infections and promote digestion. According to Paul Bergner, Echinacea was used as a dental remedy by many Native American tribes, including the Omaha Ponca, Oglala Dakota, Cheyenne, Crow and Commanche. 

Echinacea can lower fevers by stopping the spread of infection. It was used extensively by the Eclectics as an antiseptic and they used it to clean wounds, to sterilize the skin and surgical instruments before surgery. 

How we can use Echinacea today
Chances are that most of you probably won’t be using herbs to combat typhoid or malaria or rattlesnake bites or rabid dog bites. 

Echinacea angustifolia growing on a farm
However, there are lots of indications for Echinacea that we can commonly use it for. Keep in mind that energetically it is cooling and drying and is specific for signs of heat, ulcerations and fetid tissues. 

Common health complaints that fall under these categories are ulcers that won’t heal, acne, infections and boils (Echinacea is my favorite remedy for boils). It is commonly used for vaginal and urinary infections. 

There are a couple of considerations when dosing Echinacea. One, if you are dealing with something on the external surface such as bug bites, wounds, acne, boils etc. then it’s most effective when applied externally as well as taken internally. I personally like to take the tincture internally while applying a fomentation of the decocted root. You can also dilute the tincture for external use. 

Secondly, consider how often you dose Echinacea. Eclectics used Echinacea in smaller doses frequently; the exact amounts and frequency varied by practitioner. When dealing with an acute condition, taking 30-60 drops only three times a day is not ideal. Echinacea is better taken every hour or every couple hours. 

What about using Echinacea for colds and flu? No doubt that taken at the first sign of a cold or flu it can stop the illness from progressing. However, one thing to consider is that we don’t want to use Echinacea as a band-aid for a weakened immune system brought on by poor diet and lifestyle choices. If someone is frequently coming down with colds and flu, consider addressing the weakened immune system with building therapies such as rest, a nutrient-dense diet, regular exercise, joy and tonic immune-building herbs like astragalus.

In Volume 14, Number 2 of the Medical Herbalism Journal, herbalist Paul Bergner suggests this protocol when working with Echinacea for abating upper respiratory infections: 
A typical protocol of a contemporary North American medical herbalist for the use of Echinacea in the common cold:

1) A well-made tincture of the root of E. angustifolia or E. purpurea.
2) The medicine administered at first onset of symptoms.
3) A high dose of a teaspoon or more per hour for the first few hours, then tapering to 4 tsp per day on the second day and continuing while symptoms are present.
4) Aggressive treatment with Echinacea especially for those with chronic immune weak- ness rather than those in generally good health who happen to have a minor respiratory infection.

Fact or Fiction? 
Does one need to stop taking Echinacea after a certain number of days? This once popular belief came about from a misinterpreted German study. The Eclectics used Echinacea for 9 months or more without any problems. 

Should Echinacea be avoided by those with auto-immune diseases? There have been some problems associated with those who have auto-immune conditions and some herbalists say it should be avoided by those populations. However, this is a contentious issue in the herbal world and, in reality, while Echinacea may not work for some people with autoimmunity, it may work for others. 

Echinacea angustifolia

Is Echinacea angustifolia better than the other varieties? I don’t think there is a black and white answer to this. Some herbalists maintain that E. angustifolia root is the best material to make Echinacea products from. But plants are hard to pin down and you can find many differences between plants of the same species (depending on growing conditions, etc). For me, the most important thing is that whatever plant you are using it has that strong special Echinacea zing when you taste it. 

One thing to note is that Echinacea angustifolia is harder to grow than E. purpurea and grows less robustly. Therefore it costs more. 

Botanically Speaking
There are around nine plants in the Echinacea genus and all are herbaceous perennial plants. Recently Echinacea plants have been hybridized into cultivars for gardeners. 
Echinacea angustifolia and E. purpurea are the most commonly used species for medicine and E. pallida is sometimes used. For this botanical exploration we’ll look at E. angustifolia and E. purpurea. 

The term for the genus “Echinacea” is derived from the Greek word meaning hedgehog or sea urchin and refers to the center cone of the flower. 

First, let’s look at E. angustifolia, which grows up to 30 inches tall. 

The composite flowers of E. angustifolia bloom from summer to early fall. The pale pink ray flowers are less showy than E. purpurea. You’ll notice the spiky center of the flower, which is likened to a hedgehog. 

The leaves are narrow (angustifolia means narrow leaf).  

Both the stems and leaves are significantly hairy. 

The roots are taproots. 

Here is the Range Map for Echinacea angustifolia

Echinacea purpurea
Echinace purpurea grows more readily and robustly than E. angustifolia. The showy composite flowers have purple ray flowers. Purpurea means purple. 

The leaves of E. purpurea are broader than E. angustifolia. 

The roots grow from a caudex with fibrous roots. 

Photo by Luanne Marie
Here is the Range Map for Echinacea purpurea

The Future of Echinacea
The widespread use of Echinacea during the time of the Eclectics as well as the current market in North America and Europe has led to this plant’s demise in the wild. Never, ever buy wildcrafted Echinacea. There is no longer a way for anyone to wildcraft this plant sustainably. Instead, consider growing this beautiful plant in your own garden or buy it from organic cultivated sources. And if you live in this plant’s natural habitat, go on walks, spread seeds. 

Echinacea harvest on a biodynamic farm
I hope after reading this article you’ll have a new appreciation for this “cold and flu” herb. Remember, anytime marketing sums up a plant with a couple of words there is going to be a much larger picture of what it does as well as how we use it. Echinacea offers us a treasure chest of important remedies - let’s reclaim their varied uses and support the growth of this plant, both in our gardens and in the wild. 

Book Resource
Paul Bergner wrote THE book on Echinacea that I highly recommend if you are interested in learning more about this plant. You can find this book for super cheap at used book stores. 
The Healing Power of Echinacea & Goldenseal, Paul Bergner

This monograph was originally written for HerbMentor.com. If you love herbs then I highly recommend subscribing to the site. 


Joleen said...

Nice article Rosalee, thank you. I knew there was more to Echinacea, just didn't know there was sooo much more lol.

herbvilla said...

Thanks for sharing... I find it interesting eventhough only the extract available my country..

Happy New Year 2012!!


Jessica said...

I just stumbled on your blog and saw your blog roll! Thanks so much for doing that - I look forward to following your blog and many of the others you listed. My computer is not allowing me to send you an email, but I did want to share about my blog that I have recently started. I am studying to be a clinical master herbalist and an aromatherapist. My blog discusses not only herbs, but aromatherapy, nutrition and more. I would be honored to be added to your list and have linked your blog to my personal blog. I too, hope to start a blogroll soon and will be sure to add your blog to mine. Thank you for considering!

saraho said...

Really great article! Thanks Rosalee. You addressed a lot of questions I'd had about E. angustofolia v. purpurea and whether it's a good idea to use it in autoimmune conditions. I usually advise people to use it at the first onset of symptoms, and to move on to other herbs if a condition (esp cold or flu) becomes entrenched. I loved the reminders about all the other maladies that echinacea can help.
I sent you an email about my blog and would love to be included in the blogroll if it's suitable. Thanks again for all the wonderful information you share!
~Sarah at Wellness The Natural Way

Oya La said...

Hi Methow, thank you for this fabulous stuff.
We used to grow this in British Columbia.