The purifying and anti-bacterial properties of echinacea make it a valuable herbal treatment, both internally and externally. Make your own honey-sweetened decoction, or buy one of the many commercial preparations. For best results, the roots of echinacea are unearthed in autumn, after flowering.
Echinacea is a relatively unknown plant, yet it is an important remedy in many areas of herbal medicine. It is perhaps better known in the UK as an ornamental plant, of which there are white, yellow and purple species. The two species used in herbalism are both purple – Echinacea angustifolia, and to a lesser extent Echinacea purpurea, both posses healing powers, which are contained in the roots.
Echinacea is a native of the United States where it grows in the Western prairies. In Europe it is cultivated as an attractive garden plant. Sometimes called the purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea has a stout, bristly stem with tapering, hairy leaves, but its most distinctive feature is its purple flowers. These are in the form of downturned petals surrounding a cone of pointed bracts, the shape of which is reflected in its generic name – echinacea comes from the Greek for hedgehog. It was given this name by the famous 18th-century Swedish botanist Linnaeus, while Rudbeckia was given in honour of the Rudbecks, the father and son who carried on Linnaeus's work in Sweden.
Like many American Plants, echinacea was known to the native Indians, who used it for a variety of applications, including the treatment of snake bites. In Mexico, it is also valued as a traditional medicine, to prevent and cure infections and inflammation.
Echinacea, under various names, was much in evidence in the 19th century, and referred to in some medical journals. It was the main ingredient of a patent medicine called Meyer's Blood Purifier – one of the many 19th century cure-alls for which exaggerated claims were made. However, echinacea was also used by physicians as a blood purifier, and for reducing fevers. Modern research has shown that it does possess quite remarkable healing properties.
Echinacea root is what is known in herbal medicine as an 'alternative'. Basically, this means it has the ability to alter the whole system. it affects the processes of metabolism to produce gradual and beneficial changes in the body, so that it functions more efficiently – the absorption of nutrients is improved, as well as the elimination of toxins. If this elimination is impaired there can be a build up of poisons within the body. A more familiar term for an alternative is blood purifier, and echinacea is one of the best available to herbalists – other herbs of this type include nettles (see STINGING NETTLE), burdock and red clover.
Immune System Back-up
Echinacea is also a very effective antiseptic. As a preventative it improves the body's resistance to infections of all kinds, and helps deal with existing infections, including those in the blood stream. It is of particular value for chronic infections and inflammation caused by toxic conditions, helping the body to heal itself by stimulating the white blood cells which fight infection. It is effective against bacterial and viral attacks, not so much by killing them as by reinforcing the body's own immune system. For this reason it may be useful in treating viral infections such as glandular fever and ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis).
From Inside Out
One of echinacea's classic uses is as an internal remedy for skin problems. When there is infection, and elimination of the toxins is impaired, this can disturb the balance of body fluids, and septic conditions may arise, in the form of boils, abscesses, carbuncles or tissue inflammation. A course of echinacea tablets or a herbal blood purifier can help clear these up.
Other skin conditions, for example acne, dermatitis and eczema, can also be helped. Skin troubles such as these may have a variety of causes, among them stress, allergies, or a poor diet with too much junk food. The basic causes do have to be tackled as well but a herbal remedy like echinacea can be used as part of the holistic approach.
Echinacea's antibiotic and cleansing properties may be of benefit in treating low grade respiratory infections, colds, tonsillitis, and catarrh. Echinacea may also be applicable to chronic inflammatory conditions such as rheumatism. Externally, it can be applied to wounds, infections, minor burns, or used as a mouthwash.
Mix and Match
Echinacea is available as the dried root, or powdered in tablets and capsules. Certain tablets are specifically recommended for skin troubles. It is also widely used as an ingredient in combination herbal remedies, such as liquid or tablet forms of blood purifying mixtures. In these it is combined with diuretic or other purifying herbs – burdock, clivers and yellow dock. These provide excellent blood-purifying formulas that are especially helpful for skin problems. In conjunction with other herbs it can be effective against infection anywhere in the body, for example, with yarrow or bearberry it can be effective treatment for cystitis.
Echinacea is used in some herbal remedies for catarrh and hay-fever, when it is teamed with various natural ingredients and herbs like garlic. It is also available in catarrh cream, applied directly to the nose, which contains plant tinctures with oils of peppermint, thyme and eucalyptus.
Together with cutting out dairy products, which encourage the production of mucus, many people find echinacea, in conjunction with other recommended herbs, very useful.
Make Your Own
Roots like echinacea are prepared by boiling in water – what is called a decoction. To make a decoction of echinacea, simmer 30 g (1 oz) of the dried root in 550 ml (1 pint) of water for about 25 minutes. Strain and drink sweetened with honey, or use as a lotion. If you find the taste too unpalatable then take tablets or capsules. Standard recommended dosage is 0.5 to 1 g of dried root equivalent three times a day.
NATURAL FIRST AID
Echinacea can be used in a variety of first aid treatments. One dusting powder available combines tinctures of the plants arnica and marigold (calendula) – both renowned healing herbs, (see MARIGOLD; ARNICA) with echinacea and other natural ingredients. This powder can be used for minor burns, sore patches of skin and for slow-healing wounds that need to be kept dry. Echinacea is also included in a number of homoeopathic ointments specifically for burns, combined with herbal tinctures such as St. John's Wart, and marigold. To repel insects, and soothe bites, try a remedy called pyrethrum compound, which includes echinacea amongst its natural ingredients (see HOMOEOPATHIC FIRST AID).
Recent research undertaken in Germany has found that echinacea contains a chemical with strong anti-bacterial properties. Described as an anti-microbial, it can destroy or resist the micro-organisms that cause disease. For those who do not wish to take antibiotics, echinacea therefore provides an effective alternative. In recent years some General Practitioners have been prescribing a particular well-known herbal remedy for infections of the upper respiratory tract. This is a product that combines a well-tried trio of garlic, echinacea and medicinal charcoal. This remedy is particularly recommended for the relief of both catarrh and sinusitis.
Hormonal changes experienced during the teenage years, during and after pregnancy and the menopause can have a detrimental effect on the skin, and echinacea can be particularly helpful during these times. Echinacea improves the circulation of blood to the skin, as well as increasing resistance to infection which is particularly useful during adolescence when spots and blemishes can appear.