Echinacea is a genus of nine species of herbaceous plants in the family Asteraceae which are commonly called purple coneflowers. All are endemic to eastern and central North America, where they are found growing in moist to dry prairies and open wooded areas. They have large, showy heads of composite flowers, blooming from early to late summer. The genus name is from the Greek echino, meaning "spiny," due to the spiny central disk. Some species are used in herbal medicines and some are cultivated in gardens for their showy flowers.
Echinacea, popularly known as coneflower, has created a sensation among those who like to dabble in herbal health. German medical studies have proven that echinacea does indeed boost the immune system, and is useful in treating a number of common ailments.
Growing your own
The good news for gardeners is that echinacea is not only useful, it's also a beautiful addition to your perennial beds and borders, and is hardy even in very cold climates. The only thing echinacea can be somewhat fussy about is too much moisture. It likes a fairly dry soil, and should never have to sit very long with it's roots in wet, soggy soil.
Coneflowers enjoy a sunny location with fertile soil. If your soil isn't particularly fertile, work in a little compost and supplement with a good organic fertilizer. Well-drained soil is a must. In moist areas, you might need to plant in a raised bed. New plants and seedlings will need to be watered until they are established. Once they are growing well, they will thrive on the available moisture from rain except in extremely dry areas.
Echinacea plants are available in most nurseries and garden centers, but they tend to be overpriced. Luckily, they are easy to grow from seeds. Plant echinacea seeds in early spring, as soon as the soil can be worked, and when you still expect another frost or two. Sow the seeds 1/4" deep and 2" apart. When the seedlings are an inch tall, thin to 18" apart. Rabbits and hedgehogs think new echinacea shoots are a tasty treat, so protect your seedlings if these animals are known to visit your garden.
Alternatively, you can plant your seeds about 2 months before your first fall frost. This gives the plants enough time to become established, and although they won't come to bloom the first year when you plant them this late, they will give you a much better bloom period next year. Regular weeding is a must because echinacea doesn't compete well with weeds, but other than that, plants require very little care. Expect blooms from June to October in most areas. Echinacea will be one of the last plants in your garden to go dormant.
Echinacea plants are good about self sowing as long as you leave a few of the last flowers to dry up naturally. When weeding the garden in spring, watch for tiny coneflower seedlings. They can be nurtured where they are, but since Mother Nature doesn't always plant her seeds exactly where we want them, you will probably want to move them to a better location.
You can also harvest the seeds to use next year. Choose a few fully mature and ripened flower heads, and cut them, leaving a nice long stem. Hang the flowers upside down with the flower heads enclosed in paper bags. This will allow them to release their seeds into the bag when they are ready. Once the seeds have fallen, remove the chaff (plant debris) and spread the seeds out on a newspaper for 10-12 days to finish drying. They will keep in the refrigerator in a glass jar with a tight fitting lid for up to a year.
Older, established plants can be divided. In cold climates plants should be divided in late summer or spring. In warm climates, divide your plants in fall or spring.
Here are four easy steps to dividing Echinacea plants:
1. Start by loosening the soil around the perimeter of a mature plant's root system, then insert your spade under the plant and lift it up. Shake the plant gently to remove excess soil.
2. Pull the root clump apart or cut it apart with a sharp knife. Each division should have its own roots and stems.
3. Plant each clump in soil that has been amended with compost and a balanced fertilizer.
4. Water regularly to keep the soil moist but not soggy until you see signs of new growth.
For medicinal purposes, you'll want to harvest some roots and some flower tops. For best quality, wait until your plants are 3 years old. Roots are harvested in the fall when the tops have gone to seed and the plants have experienced a couple of hard frosts. Tops are harvested just as the flowers start to open. Whether harvesting tops or roots, the dried herb will be good for one year. Be sure to date the jars containing the herb so you won't use them past their potency date.
Although echinacea is used to fight many different ailments, it is most commonly used to boost the immune system and fight infection. To find out more about making tinctures, salves, syrups, antiseptics, sprays, and many other simple remedies. An earlier University of Maryland review based on 13 European studies concluded that echinacea, when taken at first sign of a cold, reduced cold symptoms or shortened their duration.The review also found that three of four published studies concluded that taking echinacea to prevent a cold was ineffective!
The European Medicines Agency (EMEA) assessed the body of evidence and approved the use of expressed juice and dried expressed juice from fresh flowering aerial parts of Echinacea purpurea for the short-term prevention and treatment of the common cold. According to their recommendations:
It should not be used for more than 10 days. The use in children below 1 year of age is contraindicated, because of theoretically possible undesirable effect on immature immune system. The use in children between 1 and 12 years of age is not recommended, because efficacy has not been sufficiently documented although specific risks are not documented. In the absence of sufficient data, the use in pregnancy and lactation is not recommended.
Echinacea is popularly believed to be an immunostimulator, stimulating the body's non-specific IMMUNE SYSTEM and warding off infections. A study commonly used to support that belief is a 2007 meta-analysis in The Lancet Infectious Diseases. The studies pooled in the meta-analysis used different types of echinacea, different parts of the plant, and various dosages. This review cannot inform recommendations on the efficacy of any particular type of echinacea, dosage, or treatment regimen. The safety of echinacea under long-term use is also unknown.
Like most natural drugs from plant or animal origin, the constituent base for echinacea is complex, consisting of a wide variety of chemicals of variable effect and potency. Some chemicals may be directly antimicrobial, while others may work at stimulating or modulating different parts of the immune system. All species have chemical compounds called phenols, which are common to many other plants. Both the phenol compounds cichoric acid and caftaric acid are present in E. purpurea, other phenols include echinacoside, which is found in greater levels within E. angustifolia and E. pallida roots than in other species. When making herbal remedies, these phenols can serve as markers for the quantity of raw echinacea in the product. Other chemical constituents that may be important in echinacea health effects include alkylamides and polysaccharides.
Echinacea root is a popular medicinal herb because it activates the body's immune system, increasing the chance of fighting off almost any disease. It is very nontoxic. Clinical studies show that extracts improve white blood cell count and create other immune responses. Echinacin, found in Echinacea, stops bacteria from forming the hyaluronidase enzyme, which helps make cells more susceptible to infection. It is a mild natural antibiotic, 6 milligrams of one glycoside equals 1 unit of penicillin, that is effective against strep and staph infections. A study done with over 200 children found that the group who took echinacea, along with two other herbs, had fewer colds and, when they did get sick, had fewer days of fever. Similar results were observed in studies with upper respiratory tract infections and viral infections. It is obvious to researchers that echinacea contains a number of immune-stimulating constituents, although the mechanism is not fully understood. Some components are better extracted into water, others into alcohol. Small amounts taken a few times daily work better than larger doses. Echinacea is also more stimulating to immunity when taken in an on-off regime, say 2 weeks on, 1 week off.
The same chemical (HA) that helps shield tissues against germs also lubricates the joints. ARTHRITIS breaks down HA, but echinacea's HA-protective action may have an anti-inflammatory effect, lending credence to the herb's traditional use in treating arthritis. German researchers have successfully treated rheumatoid arthritis with echinacea preparations. The herb is a helpful remedy for treating allergies, such as asthma.
Echinacea has a beneficial effect on white blood cells known as macrophages ("big eaters") . These cells filter the blood and lymph by engulfing and destroying bacteria, viruses, and other foreign cells through a process known as 'phagocytosis'.
Studies show that one of the key manners in which echinacea enhances immune function is by enhancing the ability of macrophages to engulf and destroy foreign matter. By enhancing the activity of these 'garbage collectors' of the body, in essence the blood is purified. The specific components of echinacea responsible for this effect are the polysaccharides, alkylamides, and cichoric acid. While each of these components is effective alone, the greatest degree of enhancement noted in research by Dr. Tapan Basu at the University of Alberta when the 3 active components are used in combination in an echinacea supplement. This synergy, where 1+1+1=6 is very powerful and found often in nature.
Other studies have shown echinacea's action on another type of white blood cell known as natural killer cells. Natural killer (NK) cells got their name because they can destroy cells which have become cancerous or infected with viruses. Typically NK cell numbers or activity will be reduced in individuals suffering from either chronic viral illness (such as chronic fatigue syndrome or chronic hepatitis) or cancer. Also, a decline in NK cell activity or number is also a common feature of aging. A recent study revealed that echinacea has the capacity to increase NK cell numbers, in aging mice, reflecting increased new NK cell production in the bone marrow, leading to an increase in the absolute numbers of NK cells in the spleen, their primary destination. These findings indicate that echinacea may be proven to help boost NK cells in aging humans as well. In addition, other studies have shown enhanced NK activity and function.
However, it must be said that not all of the evidence has been conclusive with regard to echinacea. What's complicating the picture is that testing has involved different types of extracts, either from different species or from different parts of the plants in the studies. If they use roots, they get a different chemical structure than if you use the upper parts of the plant.
Echinacea serves to support disease resistance in several ways. At the blood level, it accelerates phagocytosis, the means by which macrophages and other antibodies attack and remove bacteria. At the cellular levels, Echinacea helps to reduce the production of an enzyme that breaks down hyaluronic acid, the compound that occurs between cells to bind them together. Because of its multidirectional means of immune system support, its primary usefulness, depends on a healthy immune system. Without a healthy population of unencumbered antibodies to work with, echinacea's capacity to fight infection is limited to its simple, and less-than-impressive, antiseptic actions. This means that timing is critical to echinacea's effectiveness, this herb should be taken at the first onset of infectious symptoms, otherwise its activity will amount to a losing battle against microbial opponents that have already fortified their positions in the body.
See also MAKE YOUR OWN ECHINACEA and ECHINACEA TEAS recipe.
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