No sunny perennial border or herb garden is complete without echinacea, a robust and distinctive wildflower native exclusively to North America. Echinacea’s flowers consist of prickly, domed centers encircled by a single layer of lavender-hued petals, which are the source of the herb’s most common name, purple coneflower. The “cone” is the characteristic perfectly captured by the genus name, as Echinacea comes from the Greek echinos, meaning “hedgehog.” Centuries before European settlers arrived in North America, native tribes were using at least three species of echinacea medicinally. The herb was something of a universal remedy to Indians of the Great Plains and neighboring regions. It was used for more therapeutic purposes than almost any other herb.
Colds and flu
Echinacea is one of the best-studied herbs in herbal medicine today. It has gained a reputation for decreasing the severity and length of the common cold. It has been shown to have numerous effects on the immune system—from increased antibody responses to elevated interferon levels for fighting viruses to stimulation of white blood cells to work harder to fight infection. There are several chemical compounds in echinacea that vary among the three species of the plant, plant parts, and extraction techniques: Polysaccharides, glycoproteins, and alkylamides all have medicinal effects that boost the immune system and inhibit viruses and bacteria. Researchers continue to investigate how echinacea works.
Daily use of echinacea does not seem to protect against getting a cold; however, some studies point to an effect of reducing a cold’s length by one to two days. In order to see benefits, take adequate doses of good product at the first sign of illness.
How to Use
Tea: Steep 1 to 2 teaspoons echinacea leaf/flower in 1 cup boiling water, or boil 1 teaspoon of root in 1 to 2 cups water for 10 minutes.
Tincture: When coming down with a cold, take either a tincture of echinacea root or the expressed juice from fresh E. purpurea aboveground parts stabilized in alcohol. Every 2 hours, take 1 to 2 ml directly or diluted in water.
Capsule: The dose varies with each echinacea product, depending on the plant part used and the species. Follow manufacturer’s instructions.
Anyone with an autoimmune condition must exercise caution in taking an immune-boosting herb like echinacea. Echinacea may inhibit certain liver enzymes, theoretically increasing blood levels of medications such as itraconazole (for fungal infections), lovastatin (for lowering cholesterol), and fexofenadine (for allergies). Therefore, it is important to be careful when taking echinacea with these and other medications, including birth control pills. A rare allergic reaction can occur in people who are allergic to other plants in the Asteraceae (daisy) family. Some people experience very mild stomach upset or dizziness. High doses of echinacea can cause nausea.