by Miki Ludwick and Lynda Asher
Community Gardener, Fall 1997
Echinacea is a native plant indigenous to the central plans of the United States. This perennial member of the Compositae family grows to a height up to about 5 feet; the flowers resemble those of the black-eyed Susan and range in color from purple to white. This attractive plant is found in ornamental as well as medicinal gardens.
Historically, Echinacea was used by Native Americans and frontiersmen as a remedy for snake bites, poisonous insect bites, and for cleansing and healing wounds. Native Americans also used the juice of Echinacea to cleanse burns and in traditional purification sweats.
Today, Echinacea is still highly regarded as an immune system enhancer, antibiotic, and blood purifier. Research indicates that Echinacea stimulates the production of white blood cells to fight infections. This immune boosting quality results in Echinacea being used to treat minor bacterial and viral infections. Specifically, it is used to remedy general infections, colds, flu, strep throat, staph infections, urinary tract infections, tonsillitis, throat infections, upper respiratory infections, infected wounds, burns, allergies, toothaches, mouth and gum infections, blood and food poisonings, abscesses, bronchitis, and eczema.
Three of the nine species of Echinacea are used for medicinal purposes: E. angustifolia (narrow leafed coneflower), E. purpurea (purple coneflower), and E. pallida (pale coneflower). Each species is composed of different sets of compounds and other components that work to help the body heal itself.
Echinacea contains a number of medicinal constituents; some are water soluble, others are oil soluble. These include essential oil, isobutylalklamines, glycoside, polysaccharide, polyacetylenes, and others. It is believed that the fat-soluble components of Echinacea may be more responsible fro the plant’s immune enhancing activity.
Growing Echinacea is an easy task well worth the effort. Germinate all Echinacea seeds at 70 F. (E. angustifolia seeds require a period of chilling prior to sprouting). Echinacea appreciates full sun, moderate moisture, and an alkaline soil amended with compost, kelp, and rock phosphate.
While all parts of the plant are believed to be beneficial, it is mainly the root that is used for medicinal purposes. The healing properties of the root are most pronounced in the third and fourth year of growth. The roots are harvested in the fall after several hard frosts have caused the plant to die back. Herbal lore further specifies that roots are to be collected in the evening during the waning crescent moon.
There are a variety of ways to prepare herbs for medicinal use. These include but are not limited to: teas, infusions, decoctions, tinctures, and salves. The first three are water-based and extract the water soluble constituents, tinctures are alcohol-based and extract the fat soluble compounds. Water-based preparations must be made at or near the time of use as they do not store well; alcohol-based preparations must be made in advance, as they take 2 to 6 weeks to make, but they can be stored for several years.
The most common way to use herbs is as an herbal tea infusion. This medicinal tea is a stronger versions of a regular herbal tea. A common infusion is made by steeping 1 ounce (2 cups) of a dried herb in 1 pint to 1 quart of boiled water for 15 minutes to eight hours depending on the plant part used: seeds steep for 30 minutes, flowers steep for 2 hours, leaves steep for 4 hours, roots and back take 8 hours.
Decoctions are made by simmering herbs in water to extract the healing properties from the coarser parts of the plants like the roots and the stems. The herb is added to the boiled water in the same proportions as for an infusion and simmered for 30 minutes to an hour, or until the liquid has been reduced by half.
Tinctures are alcohol-based, concentrated herbal preparations. Alcohol is an effective solvent for many plant constituents; mixtures of alcohol and water extract most of the medicinal properties of an herb, while a the same time preserving them.
Fresh Herb Tincture
Add 100 proof vodka or the spirit of your choice to the top of the jar. Close the jar tightly.
Label the jar with the ingredients used (name and part of the plant, type of spirit) and the date of the preparation.
Top up the liquid level on day 2.
Keep the tightly closed jar in a warm place; shake twice daily.
Decant the liquid in 2 to 6 weeks.
Dried Herb Tincture
Place 2 ounces dried root in pint jar.
Add 10 fluid ounces 100 proof vodka or the spirit of your choice.
Tightly cap and label the jar.
Top liquid level for 1 week.
Decant the liquid in 2 to 6 weeks.
Echinacea may be used as a tonic, at a maintenance level, at a protective level, or to treat an infection.
Echinacea, by Stephen Fisher
Echinacea, by Christopher Hobbs
The Way of Herbs, by Michael Tierra
Healing Wise, by Susan Weed