Botanical Name – Echinacea angustifolia , E. pallida, and E. purpurea
Family – Asteraceae
Common Names – Purple Coneflower, Prairie Cone Flower, Black Sampson, and Snakeroot.
Varieties – There are nine varieties of Echinacea native to North America. Of these, three are commonly used for medicinal purposes, E. angustifolia, E pallida and E. purpurea. Although often used interchangeably, E. angustifolia was the variety used by the Native American Peoples of the western prairies and the eclectic physicians of the 19th and 20th centuries. E. purpurea, was not widely used by the eastern Native Americans. It gained notoriety as a healing agent because of its use as a snakebite remedy by a slave doctor in North Carolina. E. purpurea is the variety most often cultivated for perennial flower gardens.
Description – All of the Echinacea’s are long-lived herbaceous perennials native to North America. They all have the characteristic “cone flower”, a composite flower made up of stiff dark brown disc flowers that form a conical cone above drooping ray flowers. The ray flowers are narrow, 1-2 inches long and range from pink (sometimes white) to purple in color. When dried the seed heads are stiff, spiny, sharp and round.
Echinacea angustifolia is the plant of the Great Plains. It grows from Texas to North Dakota and from the eastern parts of the Rocky Mountain States throughout the central planes. Averaging 1-2 feet in height, the whole plant is prickly and hairy. The long tap root is dark brown to black outside with a circular sponge-like, dusky brown center that can be a thin as a pencil up to as large around as a forearm. The stem is slender, stout and bristling with hairs. The leaves are mostly basal, 3-veined, narrow and up to 4 inches long. E. angustifolia flowers from May through August depending on where you live. In the Black Hills of South Dakota it blooms in late July and August. The flowers range from 1 to several per stalk and are typical of most Echinacea species. The disc flowers in the center of the composite form are stiff, firm chaff-like brackets. It is not a soft plant.
Echinacea purpurea ranges from Pennsylvania west to the Mississippi river and is a popular perennial with lightly rough to smooth stems from 2-5 ft. in height. The flowers occur singly atop individual stems, are long lasting and bloom twice. Once at mid-summer and again in early fall with a short period of dormancy in between. The leaves are rough, and scattered and can be either alternate or opposite and up to 6” long and 3” across. The leaves are ovate to lanceolate in shape with widely spaced teeth at their margins. (Some may lack teeth.) The upper leaf surface is olive or dark green with minute hairs much softer than angustifolia. The petioles are short and slightly winged. The root system is fibrous and short-rhizomatous. Small dense colonies of plants may form from the rhizomes. This is altogether a denser, fuller and softer plant.
Part used – The roots of E. angustifolia and E. pallida make superior tinctures, extracts and decoctions. The flowers of any variety, especially E. angustifolia make superb oils and salves. The aerial part of E. purpurea is my favorite part for infusions and tea, but you can also use the roots or tops of E. angustifolia if that’s what’s growing near you. The whole plant of any of the varieties (I prefer E. angustifolia) is used to make an extraction of water soluble and alcohol soluble constituents. It takes a few extra steps and makes a broad spectrum formula that is well worth the effort.
Primary Constituents – Modern science has shown the Echinaceas to possess similar constituents and medicinal qualities. The eclectics and the native peoples preferred angustifolia. The eclectics claiming that purpurea would not produce the same results. Homeopathic physicians have done research on both plants and use them all interchangeably. The best advice I can give is to first (and always) use the variety that grows in your region. The environment will always provide what is needed to heal ourselves.
The primary constituents of Echinacea include polysaccharides, echinacein, echinoside (not found in purpurea), echinacin B, sesquiterpenes, diterpenes, inulin, two isomeric 2-methyltetradecadienes, and several forms of caffeic acid.
Medicinal Properties – Alterative, anti-inflammatory, vulnerary, diaphoretic, antibacterial, antiseptic, analgesic
Herbal Energetics – Bitter, pungent (tingling or numbing), cooling
Preparation – Tincture, oil, decoction, syrup, salve, tea, infusion, capsule, fomentation
Medicinal use – Echinacea is probably one of the best detoxifying agents in western herbalism. Wherever there is pus or red inflammation, Echinacea is sure to be effective. It is perfectly suited to work for even the most severe inflammatory conditions including boils, skin eruptions, acne, sores with pus, venomous bites, gangrene, poison ivy, poison oak and septicemia. Echinacea is an important medicine in the Plains states (including in my area). Traditionally the Native Americans in the region used it to clear the blood of toxins, toxic build up, and venomous bites. Echinacea is best suited to small (3-5 drops of the tincture) doses, frequently throughout the day.
With the primary function of Echinacea to “clear bad blood”. It is indicated when the colors of the skin, discharge or mucus is dusky, bluish or purplish in color, with a low level of inflammation. There may be a putrid smell and a tendency toward sepsis and malignancy. The tongue may appear dirty brown to jet-black. Harvey Felter in his Materia Medica circa 1922 says “the greater the tendency to lifelessness and dissolution of the tissues and the more pronounced the fetid character of the discharges, the more applicable the use of Echinacea. ” This makes Echinacea useful in the treatment of gangrene, boils, ulcerations, malignancies and abscesses, especially when accompanied with a foul discharge. Echinacea has a greater track record for success than any single herbal medicine for snake bites, insect bites and stings. Being the treatment of choice in cases for scarlet fever, syphilis, malaria, blood poisoning, and diphtheria.
Several laboratory and animal studies suggest that Echinacea contains active substances that enhance the activity of the immune system, relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and have hormonal, antiviral, and antioxidant effects. Echinacea stimulates the body’s defenses across a broad spectrum, speeding the response of white blood cells, and the rate of lymphocyte reproduction, helping to neutralize invading bacteria, toxins, proteins, viruses, and molds that can cause us harm. Echinacea is often marketed to boost the immune system, shorten the duration of the common cold and flu and reduce symptoms, such as sore throat (pharyngitis), cough, and fever. Echinacea works on the blood and lymph to fight infection through clearing toxic blood. Where ever there is pus or red inflammation, Echinacea will usually work in a few days. It’s recommended, for all sorts of infections including, ear infections (also known as otitis media), sinusitis, hay fever (also called allergic rhinitis), and slow-healing wounds. It is especially useful when acute infection is accompanied by a feeling of extreme exhaustion. These are usually the people that work themselves sick, not taking a vacation or break until they just plain fall ill. Paradoxically if you take Echinacea in too large of a dose for two long, it can bring on the feeling of exhaustion.
When applied topically in a salve or tincture, together with internal ingestion of 5 to 10 drops of the tincture several times a day, Echinacea will help limit swelling and edema and relieve the pain of many problems including hemorrhoids, contusions, arthritis, sprains, insect bites and stings. Echinacea helps heal and protect connective tissues as they heal in both acute and chronic situations. Helping to heal tendons, ligaments and muscle sheaths, makes Echinacea useful in cases of strains, repetitive motion, tendinitis and bursitis.
Preparation Methods & Dosage –
To detoxify and to clear “bad blood” use small frequent doses of the Tincture, infusion or decoction. Take 3 to 5 drops of the tincture, or a mouthful of the infusion or decoction every few hours throughout the day.
To enhance Echinacea’s immune stimulating effects for use at the beginning of a viral infection use 15-30 drops (1/2 to 1 dropperful) of the tincture several times per day. Once the acute symptoms have eased, decrease to 5–10 drops, 4-6 times per day, tapering off over a few days.
To heal connective tissue and the relieve pain and swelling of conditions such as tennis elbow, arthritis, skiers knee, bursitis and the like, use externally as a salve, oil or tincture and take 10–30 drops of the tincture internally 5 times per day.
For verminous or rabid bites, and insect stings and bites, apply the tincture, poultice, or fomentation (made with the decoction or infusion) externally and take internally 5-30 drops (depending on the kind of bite) every 15 to 30 minutes until the pain and inflammation subside. If the bite is severe, take 3-5 drops several times per day for a week or so to clear the venom and bad blood from the system.
Interactions and Counter-indications – Echinacea is one of the herbs (like Goldenseal) that can cause the symptoms it’s supposed to alleviate when taken in large quantities over long periods of time. For this reason it’s recommended to take Echinacea for 2 weeks continuously when the dose is ¼ teaspoon of tincture or more, with a minimum of 1 week off before taking it again. And take the tincture no longer than 6-8 weeks continuously when the dose is 3-10 drops.
Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West, Santa Fe, NM; Museum of New Mexico Press, 1989
Tierra, Micheal. The way of Herbs, New York, NY; Pocket Books, 1998
Felter, Harvey Wickes MD. The Eclectic Materia Medica, Pharmacology and Therapeutics, 1922
Felter, Harvey Wickes MD and Lloyd, John Uri Phr. M., Ph. D., King’s American Dispensatory, 1898
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom, Berkeley, Ca; North Atlantic Books 1997