Echinacea

Echinacea has been fundamental to North American herbal medicine since time immemorial. Read on to learn more about the herb's plethora of uses.

Quick Facts
General Information
  • Common name(s)Echinacea, Purple coneflower, Eastern purple coneflower
  • Scientific nameEchinacea purpurea
  • Geographic distributionNorth America
  • Plant typeHerb
  • Native regionNorth America
  • Main producer(s)United States of America
  • Main Economic UseMedicinal
Medicinal and Nutritional Information
  • Medicinal actionAnti-inflammatory, Antiseptic, Immune stimulant
  • Key constituentsAlkamides, polysaccharides, humulene
  • Ways to useCapsules, Tincture
  • Medicinal rating(2) Minorly useful plant
  • Safety rankingSafe
How to Consume [title]
  • Edible partsFlowers
  • TasteBitter
Buying
  • Where to buySupermarkets, Farmers' markets, Specialized health stores, Online herb stores
Growing
  • Life cycleAnnual
  • Harvested partsFlowers, Leaves, Stem, Shoot
  • Light requirementsFull sun
  • SoilMedium (loam)
  • Soil pH6.1 – 6.5 (Slightly acidic), 6.6 – 7.3 (Neutral)
  • Growing habitatCool temperate regions, Temperate climates, Woodlands
  • Pre-germination seed treatmentStratification
  • Planting timeSpring
  • Plant spacing average0.5 m (1.64 ft)
  • Propagation techniquesCuttings
  • Potential insect pestsLeafhoppers
  • Potential diseasesAster yellows
Echinacea

A uniquely American herb, echinacea has enjoyed a reputation for medicinal value since its worldwide discovery, distinguished even today as the most popular herbal remedy in the United States. While the date of echinacea's first human use remains a mystery, it is known that Native American tribes have used the plant for everything from toothaches to snake bites, including throat and eye infections. European settlers in the area were taught its medical merit as early as the 17th century. The first commercial product featuring the herb was released in 1880, bringing its popularity to all-time highs by the 1900's, when Switzerland and Germany started to capitalize on its commercial production in Europe.

Medicinal and Nutritional Information

Quick Facts (Medicinal and Nutritional Information)
  • Medicinal actionAnti-inflammatory, Antiseptic, Immune stimulant
  • Key constituentsAlkamides, polysaccharides, humulene
  • Ways to useCapsules, Tincture
  • Medicinal rating(2) Minorly useful plant
  • Safety rankingSafe

Health Benefits of Echinacea

Echinacea owes its great fame to the many different medicinal properties. Some of its primary uses include:

  • Treating respiratory infections and urinary tract infections (UTIs). Compounds in the herb, such as humulene and alkamides, may help fight infection.
  • Relieving coughs, the common cold, and throat irritation. The above-ground parts of the plant contain polysaccharides, which can cause reactions in the immune system.

Along with its primary uses, secondary medicinal properties include:

  • Disinfecting wounds and scrapes. This is echinacea's main traditional use.
  • Lowering inflammation. Echinacea may have anti-inflammatory properties.

How It Works

The exact compounds that give echinacea its powerful medicinal value are still not entirely understood, but it has been found to contain fat-soluble alkamides, caffeic acid, and polysaccharides. In addition, its volatile oil contains humulene.

Just like with its active compounds, the mechanism of action of echinacea has not been completely determined. However, researchers agree that the alkamides contained within echinacea are responsible for its immune stimulant response. Caffeic acids are antiseptic and antimicrobial in nature. Meanwhile, in vitro studies point to the fact that humulene possesses anti-inflammatory effects.

“THE ABOVE-GROUND PARTS OF THE PLANT CONTAIN POLYSACCHARIDES THAT CAN CAUSE REACTIONS IN THE IMMUNE SYSTEM.”

Echinacea Side Effects

Echinacea is likely safe for most people when taken by mouth. While echinacea rarely triggers negative reactions, there are potential side effects to watch out for, including: fever, nausea, vomiting, upset stomach, diarrhea, unpleasant taste, headache, dry mouth, dizziness, and joint and muscle pain.

When applied topically, echinacea can also cause minor skin irritation.

Cautions

Echinacea, while generally safe, can trigger allergic reactions for those who are prone to certain allergies, such as ragweed, mums, or daisies. Individuals who suffer from those allergies should exercise caution when taking echinacea, since this herb can also trigger allergic reactions. Individuals who also suffer from auto-immune disorders, such as multiple sclerosis (MS) lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis should also use echinacea with caution, since echinacea can worsen these conditions.

While it is possibly safe for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding to consume echinacea, little research has been done on its effects, so during pregnancy or lactation women should consult a physician before taking echinacea.

How to Consume Echinacea

Quick Facts (How to Consume [title])
  • Edible partsFlowers
  • TasteBitter

The most effective way of obtaining the health benefits from echinacea is in medicinal forms of consumption, particularly in its raw state, where the properties are more concentrated.

Remedies

Main preparations: Raw, tinctures, supplements

  • Raw. The echinacea root is the most potent source of medicinal properties within this entire herb. When consumed raw, echinacea can alleviate colds and soothe throat irritation because of its high concentration of polysaccharides. Raw echinacea is also has powerful anti-inflammatory properties, which makes it useful for relieving joint and muscle pain.
  • Tinctures. When prepared as a tincture, echinacea can treat respiratory infections. This is because of its high concentration of alkamides.
  • Supplements. Also potent, echinacea supplements can treat respiratory infections, as well as urinary tract infections (UTI's) due to its high concentration of alkamides and humulene.

Buying

Quick Facts (Buying)
  • Where to buySupermarkets, Farmers' markets, Specialized health stores, Online herb stores

Full-sized echinacea plants, as well as seeds for personal garden growth, are available at many garden stores and nurseries during spring and summer months. Dried and fresh varieties of the roots can be found at specialized health food stores or seasonally in select farmers' markets, though they are not particularly common in mainstream commerce.

DRIED LEAVES IN THE FORM OF TEABAGS ARE OCCASIONALLY AVAILABLE AT GROCERY STORES.

Particularly in the United States, where echinacea is best-known, herbal supplements of it can be found at health food stores, wholesale retailers, and even major supermarkets. The widest selection of echinacea products is found online, though several brick-and-mortar outlets carry it in tablet, capsule, and liquid extract form. Capsules are generally the most common, though all are relatively easy to track down.

Growing

Quick Facts (Growing)
  • Life cycleAnnual
  • Harvested partsFlowers, Leaves, Stem, Shoot
  • Light requirementsFull sun
  • SoilMedium (loam)
  • Soil pH6.1 – 6.5 (Slightly acidic), 6.6 – 7.3 (Neutral)
  • Growing habitatCool temperate regions, Temperate climates, Woodlands
  • Pre-germination seed treatmentStratification
  • Planting timeSpring
  • Plant spacing average0.5 m (1.64 ft)
  • Propagation techniquesCuttings
  • Potential insect pestsLeafhoppers
  • Potential diseasesAster yellows

A particularly hearty perennial, echinacea plants best thrive in cool, temperate climates, with initial growing temperatures between 65 – 70°F (18 – 21°C) and has sufficient sunlight.

Growing Guidelines

  • Echinacea is tolerant of both gravel-like soil and drought
  • Natural rainfall may be enough to sustain the plant without additional watering, though adding nitrogen to fertilizer may result in better yields.
  • Seeds should be planted in the spring and will germinate after 10 – 30 days, with roots ready for harvest in the fall.
  • Soil: Medium (loam)
  • Soil pH: 6.1 – 6.5 (Slightly acidic), 6.6 – 7.3 (Neutral)

Additional Information

Plant Biology

Echinacea can grow up to 47 inches (120 cm) in height and 20 inches (50 cm) in width. It features several individual stems ending in recognizable pink to light purple flowers. Leaves are covered in coarse hair, and the spiny central cone produces yellow pollen. Many of the herb's nutritional properties reside in its roots, though the entire plant offers healthful benefits.

  • Classification
    Echinacea purpurea
    is a member of the Asteraceae family, sharing its characteristic star-shaped petals with 23,000 other species of angiosperms. There are 11 recognized species of the Echinacea genus, and most of them self pollinates to some degree.
  • Varieties and Subspecies of Echinacea
    Dozens of cultivars
    of Echinacea purpurea have been developed, differing primarily in their petal color, their center shape and color, and other physical characteristics. For example, 'White Swan' has ivory petals and a yellow center, 'Sundown' touts orange petals and a flat center, 'Fatal Attraction' has black stems and deep magenta petals, and 'Ruby Giant' grows 4 - 12 inches (10 - 30 cm) than most other cultivars.

    11 distinct species
    belong to the Echinacea genus, but E. purpurea, or purple coneflower, is the most commonly used for medicinal purposes. Their differences are based on chemical ratios present in the roots. Other daisy-like varieties, however, such as E. paradoxa and E. angustifolia, range in color and in the shape of their leaves.

Historical Information

Echinacea was historically considered a “cure all” herb in Native American medicine. Archaeologists have found evidence that it was used medicinally for over 400 years to treat scarlet fever, syphilis, malaria, blood poisoning, and diphtheria. While it was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, it fell out of favor with the discovery of antibiotics. It did, however, become increasingly popular in Germany in the 20th century.

Economic Data

Though relatively far behind its counterparts in terms of worldwide consumption - it has little history of use outside of Western countries - echinacea cultivation still generates a great deal of revenue for its use in herbal medicine and supplements. A 2002 survey of American adults found that 40% had utilized the herb in some form over the past year, contributing to yearly sales that are estimated at $58 million USD. Germany is also a notable source of echinacea, boasting the production of more than 200 different supplements that feature the herb.

Popular Beliefs

Echinacea, with its prickly scales and its large conical seed head, received its name because of its resemblance to a hedgehog (the hedgehog's Greek name is echinos).

Other Uses of Echinacea

For Gardening

Prized for its trademark purple petals and low-maintenance growth, echinacea is admired as an ornamental plant in much of the United States.

For Supporting Wildlife

It is also useful for attracting small-scale wildlife, as nectar-loving insects are drawn to its pollen and birds are fond of its seeds.

Bibliography


DISCLAIMER: The information provided is intended only as a general reference for further exploration, and is not a replacement for professional health advice. This information should be used only under the direct supervision of a qualified health practitioner such as a naturopathic physician. Information contained in HerbaZest.com is based on pharmacological records, scientific research, traditional knowledge and historical data, both old and modern. HerbaZest.com cannot be held responsible for the accuracy of the information provided.