By Rita Bober
It is called by many names — coneflower, Prairie flower, pale purple coneflower, snakeroot, rudbeckia, black sampson — but it is mostly known by its botanical name: Echinacea. And this plant is not only beautiful but has great medicine for us. It is native to the United States and at one time it grew in large numbers in prairies, open meadows, and sunny woodland clearings. But because of loss of habitat as a result of large-scale farming and unethical harvesting in the wild, today we mostly see Echinacea growing in people’s yards. Echinacea angustifolia and E. purpurea are most known for their medicinal properties.
A long-lived perennial, Echinacea is 6 to 40 inches tall, depending on growing conditions and species. The cone-shaped flowers are 2 to 5 inches in diameter and range from pale purple pink to deep purple with the petals drooping downward as the plant matures. It is in the sunflower family. The leaves are lanceolate to almost oval, with Echinacea purpurea leaves being toothed although most of the other species are not.
Echinacea is most affective as an immune system tonic that was widely used by Native Americans. We have seen recent scientific verification and marketing campaigns that have turned Echinacea into an herbal wonder-drug. Therefore, it is often misused. What it is best known for is that it provides a needed auto-immune boost at the beginning of a bacterial or viral infection. It works best to ward off a cold or flu when given before the infection is established in the body. It really is used for all inflammatory conditions including laryngitis and tonsillitis. It cannot be a supplement to use “just in case”, or as a substitute for a depressed immune system. It is best to use it only for a limited time; using it all the time will reduce its effectiveness.
This valuable herb is also useful in healing infected skin wounds and provides pain relief and eliminates disagreeable odors of pus formation and fetid discharges from infected wounds. It also relieves non-venomous bites and stings and as an antidote for microbial infections. Studies in Germany, where Echinacea has been used since the 1930s, have shown its usefulness also for certain cancers, various viral diseases and helping in the treatment of AIDS.
So you see what a great herb this would be to have around. It is best used as a tea or tincture. But do you know how much that costs at a natural/health food store? More money than you will want to spend. So it is a good idea to learn how to grow and harvest Echinacea from your own garden. Collect the flowers, leaves, and roots for medicine. The root is best collected in the fall of its third year. Fresh herb parts make the best medicine but you can also dry the flowers, leaves, and roots to use them for tea. Here is how to make a tincture:
Collect flowers, leaves, and root of a third-year plant. Wash off the plant and especially wash the root. Cut up in small pieces and place in a pint jar that can be tightly closed. Cover with brandy (I like B&J Brandy) or vodka to at least 1 inch above the herb. (The alcohol will extract the medicine as well as act as a preservative.) Stir with a knife to make sure there are not any air bubbles in the jar. Cover with a tight lid and make a note on the jar as to its content and date made. Keep the jar on your kitchen counter and shake it every day for 6 weeks. After 6 weeks, decant the herb (remove the plant parts using cheesecloth, place herb parts on your compost pile) and put the tincture in dark colored jars. Use 10-30 drops of the tincture for acute conditions every 2 hours, and for chronic conditions, three times a day. Tinctures can be safely kept and used for a number of years.
Here is a medicinal plant that would be handy to have growing in your garden or yard and it is very beautiful as well. I hope you have some near you. (Please note: I am not a medical doctor, so I cannot tell you what to take for specific medical conditions. I can only educate you about what I have learned.)
Published in the Spring, 2010, Michigan Land Trust Newsletter