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Chronicles of Mugwort - Volume One - Echinacea, by Louise Harmon

Several years ago I spotted a somewhat ragged Echinacea plant at our local nursery. It was toward the end of the summer when the nursery had deeply discounted its remaining plants to clear its inventory.

echinacheaThis poor little soul lingered in her pot, looking so sad, that I simply could not walk away. I brought her home and planted her in the part of my garden between Marshmallow and Rose, uncertain if I would see her next year. However, as winter warmed to spring then into summer, there was Echinacea small but making a vibrant comeback.

Echinacea, more commonly known as Coneflower, is a member of the Asteraceae or Aster/Daisy family. It has a long history of indigenous use for treating sore throats, coughs, headaches and infection. It is considered antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral as well as thought to stimulate the immune system.

The three types of Echinacea most commonly used for medicine are Echinacea purpurea-Purple Coneflower, Echinacea angustifolia-Narrowleaf Coneflower and Echinacea pallida-Pale Purple Coneflower. A fourth Coneflower, Echinacea tennensiensis, is considered an endangered plant and should never be used.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is the one most often found in gardens as it tends to be less demanding to grow. Most of what I read about Echinacea indicated that although the seeds, flowers and leaves have some medicinal value, the plant’s roots make the most potent medicine. Purple Coneflower has the smallest root of the three whereas Narrowleaf Coneflower and Pale Purple Coneflower have long taproots which are better suited for making medicine from the roots.

Echinacea spp (spp is the botanical abbreviation for all species in a genus) is listed as an ‘At Risk’ plant by United Plant Savers and should not be harvested from wild places. When purchasing Echinacea protect our at-risk and endangered plants by making certain your source was grown organically for harvest and not taken from the wild.

As fall rolled around and the Echinacea planted in my garden held onto her last few summer flowers, I just did not feel right about harvesting her roots, so again, I just left her. The following summer, Echinacea was beautiful with many more flowers, obviously enjoying her garden home. Again, fall came and went and I chose to simply do nothing with Echinacea’s roots.

I began reading Henriette Kress’s wonderful book, Practical Herbs, and paid particular attention to her discussion about Echinacea. Henriette noted that the above ground parts- the leaves, flowers and seeds- were all as medicinally effective as the root. I began planning how to use Echinacea without disturbing her too badly, deciding to make a progressive or staged tincture.

When Echinacea sprouted her new leaves the next spring, but before her flowers began to open, I harvested enough leaves when chopped to loosely fill an eight ounce jar. I added enough 65% alcohol to cover the leaves, capped it tightly. I stored it in the dark of my herb cabinet, shaking it twice daily for the first two weeks, then occasionally afterward.

After six weeks, I strained the tincture and returned it to the clean jar, this time adding several newly opened flowers (cleaned and chopped). I topped off the alcohol to cover the flowers, capped it tightly and proceeded as before, waiting another six to eight weeks. 



By this time, the Echinacea seed heads were beginning to ripen. The ripe seed head of the flower will have a prominent ‘cone’ shape with the petals drooping downward as opposed to the more flat center and daisy-like appearance of new flowers.

I picked several of these ‘ripe’ flowers and chopped them up, attempting to crush the seeds which was more difficult than I thought. After straining the tincture, I added these chopped seed heads to the jar, again topping it off with more 65% alcohol to cover the flowers, capping it tightly, shaking it periodically and allowing it to ‘brew’ for another six weeks.

The resulting tincture worked very well to ward off some of the nasty ’bugs’ I seem to catch each winter. I work in an office building, “Cubicle Land”, where colds and flues spread rapidly among employees.

At the first sign of a scratchy throat, a dry cough or just feeling achy and tired, I took a dropperful of tincture in the morning and in the evening, and continued taking it for at least a week (sometimes two). I managed to escape most of my co-workers illnesses and the one I did have, was quite minor.

During the month of February, I had to fly to Florida to visit an ailing family member and took Echinacea tincture prophylactically, twice daily, while I was away. Despite being confined on a six hour flight during the height of flu season, exposed to passengers who were coughing and sneezing, I remained healthy.

echinachea 2During a severe cold or flu, Echinacea can be taken with other herbal preparations, such as Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) or Oregon Grape root (Mahonia spp) to boost its effectiveness and there are several companies which offer Echinacea tincture combinations.

There seems to be differing opinions as to how and when to use Echinacea. Some sources say it should only be used at the onset of cold or flu symptoms and for no longer than ten days. Others indicate that taking Echinacea on a daily basis can help boost the immune system, especially for those individuals who are prone to illness, preventing many colds.

There is some debate as to whether Echinacea should be avoided by those with an autoimmune disorder or HIV. However, this does not appear to have been well-studied.

I have also read that once you have an active case of the flu, Echinacea will do little to help. Confusing, isn’t it? As with many things in life, how you choose to use Echinacea will be up to your own unique needs.

Research the available literature and make your own well-informed choice of what is best for you. If you are allergic to ragweed, use Echinacea with caution. If you are pregnant, as with any herbal or botanical preparation, do not use without first discussing with your healthcare provider.

This information is offered for educational purposes and is not intended to take the place of personalized medical care from a trained healthcare professional. The reader assumes all risk when utilizing the above information.

Copyright© 2013 Louise Harmon
All Rights Reserved


Herbal Encyclopedia-Echinacea

Practical Herbs - Kress, Henriette. (2011)

Materia Medica Echinacea

United Plant Savers

Wikipedia. Echinacea



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