Echinacea, Augustafolia, Purpurea, and related species
Parts used: roots, leaves, flowers, and seeds
Major Medicinal Actions: immune enhancer, anti-inflammatory, anti-biotic, anti-microbial, antibacterial, wound healing, detoxifying
Using Echinacea: Echinacea is certainly one of the most popular herbs of our times, and for good reason. It is simply one of the top immuno enhancing (helps build immune health and fight off disease and infection). It is quite lovely, easy to grow, hearty, and, though incredibly effective, it is known to have few if any side effects or residual build up in the body. It can be grown easily in most garden settings, adding not only beauty, but medicine as well. It is easy to make medicine from the plant and, once made, the medicine is effective for colds, flus, and many other illnesses. Extensive research, much of it done in Germany and other European countries confirms that Echinacea raises the body’s natural resistance to infection by stimulating and aiding immune function. Between 1930 and 1990, over 300 scientific articles and at least that many clinical studies have been done on Echinacea.
It works, in part, by increasing macrophage and T-Cell activity, which fortifies the body’s protective shield or first line of defense. It’s rich in polysaccharides, which help to protect the cells against the invasion of virus and bacteria. Echinacea also has antifungal and antibacterial properties making it an effective medicine against certain types of fungal and bacterial infections. Though potent and strong, it is safe with few side effects; even young children and elderly people can use it safely. What’s not to like about this native plant? It’s been called the ‘great herbal diplomat’ because echinacea, perhaps more than any other medicinal plant, rescued herbalism from its 20th century obscurity.
Use in tea or tincture form to boost immunity at the first sign of a cold or flu. Echinacea is effective against bronchial infections as a tea or tincture. Use the tea as a spray for sore throats. For sore gums and mouth inflammation, make a mouth wash from the root and add peppermint or spearmint essential oil to flavor. Take it in frequent small dosages (1/2 tsp. every hour) for it to be effective at warding off illness. Echinacea is always more effective if taken at the early signs of illness, before the illness has the opportunity to ‘settle in’. Remember, it works at the ‘first line of defense’ activating macrophage activity that gobbles up and destroys pathogens when they first enter the blood stream. Echinacea is particularly effective for bronchial and respiratory infections and for sore throats, gum and mouth infections, and for any situation where the immune system needs fortifying. Used as a tea, syrup, spray, and in capsule and tincture form, echinacea is easy to prepare and use.
There are several types of Echinacea available. Avoid wild harvested varieties unless you know your source well; i.e. actually see where they harvest and know the health of the wild populations. Because of the huge demand over the past 40 years corresponding to growing concerns of immune issues worldwide, Echinacea is being poached unmercifully from its wild habitats. Several species are already ‘at risk’ or endangered. The good news is that Echinacea is easy to grow, not fussy, relatively fast growing and vigorous. Most of the echinacea available these days comes from organically cultivated sources. There are several medicinal varieties currently on market; I generally suggest Echinacea purpurea because it’s easily grown, is effective and more common than the other species.
My first experience using Echinacea was back in the early 1980’s. I was running my little herb shoppe, Rosemary’s Garden, in the small town of Guerneville on the Russian River in Sonoma County. A very diverse and colorful community, Guerneville was fondly referred to by locals as ‘granolaville, the town of fruits, nuts and flakes’. And it was a little bit of that, filled with wonderfully colorful artistic people, young hippies, back to the landers, and elderly wealthy people from the city. It was a great place to practice herbalism, because without having to go far, there was every type of person, and every type of imbalance and illnesses to treat from head lice, to staph, common colds, to sunburns, and drug related issues. I was kept pretty busy for a young herbalist learning to practice! Located an hour and a half north of San Francisco, Guerneville was also considered, quite literally, a ‘bedroom community’ of the San Francisco gay community. All in all, through the 70s and early 80s it was a rollicking good time for everyone…and then the AIDS epidemic hit in force. No one knew what it was, where it came from, but only that it made people very ill, and in most cases was deadly. And it hit the gay community with a vengeance. We would watch favorite shops close down, restaurants go out of business, homes get boarded up as the owners quite literally withered away. Sadly, people reacted with less than kindness and compassion, and often, with great prejudice, and it wasn’t until many years later that people finally recognized that AIDS could strike anyone, and anyone who contacted it needed compassion and help, rather than judgment and prejudice.
Hard as it is to believe, Echinacea was not an herb being used much at all. While it had a long history of being used by the Native people and the early pioneers and Eclectic Doctors also made good use of it, by the 1970’s and early 1980s, it hadn’t been ‘rediscovered’ in the U.S. and certainly wasn’t as popular as it is now. Mention Echinacea to just about anyone back then, and they’d look at you like you’d just uttered a nonsensible word. But though it wasn’t being used on the North American Continent, it was being harvested and exported to European countries in huge amounts, and the European pharmacies and large herbal companies were making great use of it as an immune enhancer. Many excellent ~ and not so excellent ~ studies were done during this time on Echinacea in Germany, France and Japan. And those studies were trickling back to the U.S. While we slept and allowed it to be harvested in huge tonnage from our wild lands, Europe was making great use of this native plant.
I had been reading some of the research being done on Echinacea, and some of the articles that had been recently published in HerbalGram, and a few of the other journals that were being printed at the time. And all were reporting significant findings on the usefulness of Echinacea for supporting the immune system. While we didn’t really know exactly what was happening physiologically to people with AIDS, it seemed pretty apparent that their immune systems were being attacked. A young man came into the shop one day to tell me his friend, Robert, was in the hospital and very very ill with AIDS and wasn’t expected to live much longer. Did I have anything that might ‘help’? I knew Robert because he owned a cleaning business called Helping Hands, but whether I knew him or not, I would have wanted to help in whatever small way I could.
I had a friend, Michael Voljeck, who was harvesting wild Echinacea Angustifolia directly from the prairies, so I started ordering several pounds of fresh herb from him. He would ship it over night to me, and as soon as it arrived, I would prepare it into a very strong decoction and we would take it to Robert who was in the County Hospital in Santa Rosa. Robert was drinking several cups of this warm decoction daily, and slowly, instead of getting weaker and thinner, like so many of the other AIDS patients, Robert began to get better. It was a slow process, and lots of tea, good food, love, and care and compassion, but he did recover, left the hospital and resumed his cleaning business, Helping Hands, for at least a few more years on the River. I lost touch with Robert when I moved from California to the East Coast. But I like to think he’s still alive, helping others with his Helping Hands.
Later as reports were written and more studies done, I’d hear that Echinacea was counter indicated for autoimmune issues. Since it was thought to stimulate the immune system, it could actually make autoimmune issues worse. Theoretically, that makes sense, but I’ve used Echinacea often for various auto immune disorders and have never seen it actually make the symptoms worse, and often, as in the case of Robert, it actually makes them much better. Other herbalists have also found that herbs that are considered immune enhancers can actually be beneficial, not harmful, to auto immune disorders. With that said, one must be careful when using an immune enhancer with an autoimmune disorder. If the symptoms get worse, not better, then discontinue using echinacea.
Many herbalists and natural medicine practitioners feel it’s the most important immune enhancing herb in western herbal medicine. Echinacea works by increasing macrophage and T-Cell activity and thereby raising the potency of the body’s protective shield. Historically, Cheyenne and Comanche peoples collected and treasured this plant for use during the cold season, and it is still the remedy par excellence for healing and preventing colds and flus. As a lung treatment, use Echinacea whenever bronchial inflammation, strep throat or chronic or acute bacterial and viral infections are apparent. Also use it for herpes and other systemic infections and for lymphatic infections.
It is found growing wild in central to southwestern United States and prefers wide-open grasslands and prairies. The three varieties of Echinacea that are widely used contain different levels of the therapeutic polysaccharides. Echinacea Purpurea is perhaps the most common variety in commerce and is the one on which much clinical research has been done. However, all of these varieties have their virtues. Both the root and herb are used.