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 actionAntimicrobial, Immune stimulant
  • Key constituentsAlkamides, polysaccharides, humulene
  • Ways to useCapsules, Freshly ground, Tincture
  • Medicinal rating(2) Minorly useful plant
  • Safety rankingSafe
How to Consume
  • Edible partsFlowers
  • TasteBitter
Buying
  • Where to buySupermarkets, Farmers' markets, Specialized health stores, Online herb stores, Organic markets, Online health 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 actionAntimicrobial, Immune stimulant
  • Key constituentsAlkamides, polysaccharides, humulene
  • Ways to useCapsules, Freshly ground, Tincture
  • Medicinal rating(2) Minorly useful plant
  • Safety rankingSafe

Health Benefits of Echinacea

Echinacea has a long history of medicinal uses. The  herb has been traditionally prescribed to treat a myriad of health conditions; however, it has been shown to be mainly useful for:

  • Treating infections. Echinacea has proven effective in the treatment of viral and bacterial diseases, particularly respiratory and urinary tract infections.

  • Enhancing immunity. Echinacea has  immune stimulant properties, which help prevent the attack of harmful pathogens and aid recovery.

The folk uses of echinacea also include:

  • Disinfecting wounds and scrapes. The antiseptic properties of echinacea have been traditionally used to sanitize open wounds and prevent infections.

  • Lowering inflammation. Echinacea's anti-inflammatory properties have long been used for the relief of cough, cold, and throat irritation.

How It Works

The exact compounds and mechanisms of action that gives echinacea its powerful medicinal value are still not entirely understood, but the herb has been found to contain fat-soluble alkamides, caffeic acid, and polysaccharides, whereas its volatile oil contains humulene, which in vitro studies have suggested to possess anti-inflammatory effects.

Humulene and alkamides are thought to be the phytochemicals responsible for echinacea's ability of fighting infections.

On the other hand, the alkamides contained in echinacea seem to give the herb its immune stimulant properties.

Additionally, caffeic acids are antiseptic and antimicrobial in nature.

THE ABOVE-GROUND PARTS OF THE PLANT CONTAIN POLYSACCHARIDES THAT CAN IMPROVE IMMUNE RESPONSE.

Other herbs that enhance immunity are cabbage and noni, while oak and calendula also have antimicrobial properties.

Echinacea Side Effects

Echinacea is likely safe for most people when taken by mouth. The herb rarely triggers negative reactions; however, 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

Individuals who are sensitive to Asteraceae species, such as ragweed, mums, or daisies should exercise caution when taking echinacea, since this herb can also trigger allergic reactions.

Likewise, those who suffer from auto-immune disorders, such as multiple sclerosis (MS) lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis should also use echinacea with caution, since t consuming this herb can worsen these conditions.

While consuming echinacea is fairly safe for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, little research has been done on its effects, so during pregnancy or lactation women should consult a physician before taking the herb in medicinal doses.

How to Consume Echinacea

Quick Facts (How to Consume)
  • 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: Capsules and tablets, raw root, tincture

  • Capsules and tablets. Echinacea supplements are widely preferred to treat respiratory and urinary tract infections, due to their high concentration of active compounds.

  • Raw. The raw root of echinacea has powerful antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, which make it useful for alleviating colds and soothe throat, as well as for relieving joint and muscle pain.

  • Tinctures. This concentrated preparation is high in alkamides, and  must be diluted in a glass of water in order to treat respiratory infections.

Buying

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

Fresh and Dried Echinacea

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.

Echinacea Supplements

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 a drought-tolerant plant, and can be grown in a wide range of soils, from gravel to loam, as long as adequate drainage is provided.

  • The ideal range of pH for echinacea is slightly acidic to neutral (6.1 - 7.3)

  • Seeds should be planted in the spring and will germinate after 10 - 30 days.

  • Natural rainfall may be enough to sustain the plant without additional watering.

  •  Adding nitrogen to fertilizer may result in better yields.

  • The roots of echinacea will be ready for harvest in the fall.

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, such as chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), and marigold (Tagetes erecta). 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).
  • 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.

Echinacea was introduced as a pharmaceutical product in western medicine in 1895, and the roots of the plant remained as official drugs in the National Formulary of the USA until 1950.

While echinacea was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, it fell out of favor with the discovery of antibiotics.

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 has always been controversial in the arena of modern medicine. While its immune stimulant actions have proven useful to some extend, there is no indication that the herb alone can be used as a substitute of prescription drugs. However, echinacea is widely popular in some countries, like Germany, where its active compounds are injected, primarily as an alternative to flu shots.

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