Echinacea, commonly known as the purple coneflower, is a perennial herb of the Composite family, commonly known as the daisy family. Most often referred to as the purple coneflower, this hardy plant is also known as Sampson root, Missouri snakeroot, and rudbeckia. The prominent, bristly seed head inspired the generic name of the plant, taken from the Greek word, echinos meaning hedgehog.
Echinacea is a North American prairie native, abundant in the mid west and cultivated widely in ornamental and medicinal gardens. The purple-pink rays of the blossom droop downward from a brassy hued center cone composed of many small, tubular florets. The conspicuous flowers bloom singly on stout, prickly stems from mid-summer to autumn. Flower heads may grow to 4 in (10.16 cm) across. The dark green leaves are opposite, entire, lanceolate, toothed, and hairy with three prominent veins. The narrow upper leaves are attached to the stem with stalks. The lower leaves are longer, emerging from the stem without a leaf stalk, and growing to 8 in (20.32 cm) in length. The plant develops deep, slender, black roots. Echinacea propagates easily from seed or by root cuttings. However, due to its increasing popularity as an herbal supplement, echinacea is numbered among the 19 medicinal plants considered at risk by the Vermont nonprofit organization United Plant Savers.
Three species of echinacea are useful medicinally: Echinacea augustifolia, Echinacea purpurea, and Echinacea pallida. The entire plant has numerous medicinal properties that act synergistically to good effect. Echinacea is most often used to boost the immune system and fight infection. Research has shown that echinacea increases production of interferon in the body. It is antiseptic and antimicrobial, with properties that act to increase the number of white blood cells available to destroy bacteria and slow the spread of infection. As a depurative, the herbal extract cleanses and purifies the bloodstream, and has been used effectively to treat boils. Echinacea is vulnerary, promoting wound healing through the action of a chemical substance in the root known as caffeic acid glycoside. As an alterative and an immuno-modulator, echinacea acts gradually to promote beneficial change in the entire system. It has also been used to treat urinary infection and Candida albicans infections. Echinacea is a febrifuge, useful in reducing fevers. It is also useful in the treatment of hemorrhoids. A tincture, or a strong decoction of echinacea serves as an effective mouthwash for the treatment of pyorrhea and gingivitis.
Native American plains Indians relied on echinacea as an all-purpose antiseptic. The Sioux tribe valued the root as a remedy for snake bite, the Cheyenne tribe chewed the root to quench thirst, and another tribe washed their hands in a decoction of echinacea to increase their tolerance of heat. European settlers learned of the North American herb's many uses, and soon numerous echinacea-based remedies were commercially available from pharmaceutical companies in the United States. Echinacea was a popular remedy in the United
States through the 1930s. It was among many medicinal herbs listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia, the official U.S. government listing of pharmaceutical raw materials and recipes. The herb fell out of popular use in the United States with the availability of antibiotics. In West Germany, more than 200 preparations are made from the species E. purpurea. Commercially prepared salves, tinctures, teas, and extracts are marketed using standardized extracts. Echinacea is regaining its status in the United States as a household medicine-chest staple in many homes. It is one of the best-selling herbal supplements in U.S. health food stores.
Clinical studies have found that the entire plant possesses medicinal properties with varying levels of effectiveness. Echinacea is of particular benefit in the treatment of upper respiratory tract infections. Some research has shown that echinacea activates the macrophages that destroy cancer cells and pathogens. When taken after cancer treatments, an extract of the root has been found to increase the body's production of white blood cells. Echinacea has been shown to be most effective when taken at the first sign of illness, rather than when used as a daily preventative. Other research has demonstrated the significant effect of E. purpurea root on reducing the duration and severity of colds and flu. Some herbal references list only the root as the medicinal part, others include the aerial parts of the plant, particularly the leaf. Most research has been done on the species E. pallida and E. purpurea. All three species of echinacea are rich in vitamins and minerals. Echinacea is an herbal source of niacin, chromium, iron, manganese, selenium, silicon, and zinc.
While echinacea has proven effective for treating or preventing upper respiratory tract infections, scientific research proving its effectiveness for other uses still lacks, according to a report released in early 2002. The report says that data for other uses of the herb are inconclusive or don't exist.
The quality of any herbal supplement depends greatly on the conditions of weather and soil where the herb was grown, the timing and care in harvesting, and the manner of preparation and storage.
Decoction is the best method to extract the mineral salts and other healing components from the coarser herb materials, such as the root, bark, and stems. It is prepared
An infusion is the method used to derive benefits from the leaves, flowers, and stems in the form of an herbal tea. Twice as much fresh, chopped herb as dried herb should be used. It is steeped in one pint of boiled, unchlorinated water for 10-15 minutes. Next, it is strained and covered. The infusion is drunk warm and sweetened with honey if desired. A standard dose is three cups per day. An infusion will keep for up to two days in the refrigerator and retain its healing qualities.
A tincture is the usual method to prepare a concentrated form of the herbal remedy. Tinctures, properly prepared and stored, will retain medicinal potency for two years or more. Combine 4 oz (112 g) of finely cut fresh or powdered dry herb with one pint of brandy, gin, or vodka, in a glass container. The alcohol should be enough to cover the plant parts and have a 50/50 ratio of alcohol to water. The mixture should be placed away from light for about two weeks and shaken several times each day. It should be strained and stored in a tightly capped, dark glass bottle. A standard dose is one 4 ml of the tincture three times a day.
Echinacea is considered safe in recommended doses. Pregnant or lactating women, however, are advised not to take echinacea in injection form. Because the plant has proven immuno-modulating properties, individuals with systemic lupus erythmatosus, rheumatoid arthritis, tuberculosis, leukemia, multiple sclerosis, or AIDS should consult their physician before using echinacea. Echinacea should not be given to children under two years of age and it should only be given to children over two in consultation with a physician. Research indicates that echinacea is most effective when taken at first onset of symptoms of cold or flu, and when usage is continued no longer than eight weeks. There is some indication that the herb loses its effectiveness when used over a long period of time. It is necessary to interrupt use for a minimum of several weeks in order to give the body's immune system the opportunity to rest and adjust.
No side effects are reported with oral administration of echinacea, either in tincture, capsule, or as a tea, when taken according to recommended doses. Chills, fever, and allergic reactions have been reported in some research studies using an injection of the plant extract. Different brands of echinacea vary considerably in effectiveness.
Those taking drugs to suppress the immune system should check with their doctors before taking Echinacea. When used in combination with other herbs, dosage should be lowered.
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Teresa G. Odle