Echinacea is a beautiful flowering plant that has become quite popular in herbal remedies, especially for warding off colds and the flu. The benefits of Echinacea reach far beyond upper respiratory infections however. They can be a powerful way to address infections, venomous bites and stings, and promote lymphatic drainage.
Echinacea is endemic to North America and, before it was over-harvested, it grew abundantly from the east to the middle of the continent. First used by many Native Americans in a variety of ways, it later became popular among the Eclectic physicians in the late 1800s and was considered one of their most important herbs.
There are many different species of Echinacea. The two easiest to find in commerce are Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea angustifolia.
E. purpurea is easiest to grow and tends to be cheaper to buy. Medicine makers use the entire plant (including flowers, stems, leaves and roots).
E. angustifolia is harder to grow and is therefore often more expensive to buy. Medicine makers generally use only the roots of the plant.
Some herbalists maintain that E. angustifolia root is the best material to make Echinacea products from. I feel that perspective is overly simplified and that both plants can be made into powerful herbal medicines.
If you taste a potent Echinacea product, or simply bite into the fresh plant (flowers, roots, stems, or leaves), you’ll experience the Echinacea zing. Its acrid taste is numbing on the throat and tongue while being dispersive throughout the body. Echinacea is therefore stimulating in nature. It stimulates immune system function, it promotes the flow of lymph to address swollen lymphatic glands and even stimulates saliva.
Energetically, Echinacea is cooling in nature and is used for signs of heat, most notably infections. Because it stimulates body secretions, it is also drying.
Echinacea is an alterative herb. Alterative is an herbal term which broadly means to alter or move someone towards health. Alterative herbs support systems of detoxification (e.g., lungs, skin, lymph, etc) to assist the body in removing metabolic waste. Herbalist jim mcdonald likens this term to cleaning out the ash and soot build up in a wood stove. Once that build up is removed, the stove works more efficiently.
The Eclectics were physician herbalists who were a part of mainstream medicine in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. Once Echinacea was brought into use within the Eclectic literature, it quickly gained hold to be one of their favorites remedies. Eclectics considered Echinacea, above all, to be an alterative.
“[Echinacea] it is an alterative, exerting an influence over the secretory and lymphatic functions, which is unsurpassed by few, if any other of the known alteratives.” - King’s American Dispensatory, 1898
Echinacea angustifolia on a farm
While Echinacea is most popular today for its ability to help with colds and the flu, where Echinacea really shines is in its ability to help the body fight off infections.
Long known as the toothache plant, echinacea tea or diluted tincture can
be swished frequently to address tooth infections or ulcerations of the
oral mucous membranes. A pilot study showed that an oral patch
containing Echinacea pupurea, Gotu kola (Centella asiatica) and
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) was effective in reducing inflammation
associated with gingivitis.2
Herbalists regularly use Echinacea as part of a formula for addressing urinary tract infections.
Infected wounds and scrapes also do well with Echinacea, again both internally and externally.
Eclectic herbalists used Echinacea for many other types of infections, including syphilis, chronic leg ulcers, gonorrhea, rabid dog bites and septicemia.3
In addition to rattlesnakes, Eclectic physicians also used Echinacea for spider bites, wasp bites, bee stings, and scorpion stings.6
For twenty to twenty-five years, echinacea has been passing through the stages of critical experimentation under the observation of several thousand physicians, and its remarkable properties are receiving positive confirmation... All who use it correctly fall quickly into line as enthusiasts in its praise.
Finley Ellingwood, American Materia Medica, 1919
Today Echinacea is one of the most popular herbs in mainstream culture. It is especially known and used for warding off a cold or flu, which is a more recent application of this herb. Many studies have been done regarding Echinacea and upper respiratory infections and there are mixed results. A look at the negative results often indicates a problem with the design of the study such as incorrect dosage or incorrect frequency of dosage.
Another recent study showed that a patent formula of Echinacea purpurea
was just as effective as a commonly prescribed influenza pharmaceutical
drug; plus, those taking the herbal formula had fewer side effects.8
Echinacea has long been used for sore throats, both by Native Americans and Eclectic and modern day herbalists. In this case a throat spray or other direct application is best. In vitro studies have shown that Echinacea purpurea is active against the bacteria that causes strep throat (Streptococcus pyogenes).9
Another powerful effect of Echinacea during a cold or flu is for swollen lymph glands (lymphagogue). Eclectic physicians also used Echinacea to support the fever process for a variety of febrile conditions such as typhoid and malaria.
Undoubtedly Echinacea works in a myriad of ways that we can only begin to comprehend. But modern science has been able to figure out some of the miraculous ways of this magical plant.
One way that it works is to increase phagocytosis. Phagocytosis means “to devour” and is an immune response that includes the engulfing and destruction of micro organisms as well as damaged or old cells and other cellular debris. This is a major way that the immune system removes various pathogens, bacteria and other cellular debris.
There are around nine plants in the Echinacea genus and all are herbaceous perennial plants. Recently Echinacea plants have been hybridized into cultivars for gardeners.
Echinacea angustifolia and E. purpurea are the most commonly used species for medicine. Occasionally you may also find E. pallida in commerce. For this botanical exploration we’ll look at E. angustifolia and E. purpurea.
The term for the genus “Echinacea” is derived from the Greek word meaning hedgehog or sea urchin and refers to the center cone of the flower.
First, let’s look at E. angustifolia, which grows up to 30 inches tall.
The composite flowers of E. angustifolia bloom from summer to early fall. The pale pink ray flowers are less showy than E. purpurea. You’ll notice the spiky center of the flower, which is likened to a hedgehog.
Both the stems and leaves are significantly hairy
The roots are taproots
Echinacea purpurea grows more readily and robustly than E. angustifolia. The showy composite flowers have purple ray flowers. Purpurea means purple.
The leaves of E. purpurea are broader than E. angustifolia.
The roots grow from a caudex with fibrous roots.
Photo by Luanne Marie
Range Map for Echinacea purpurea
Chances are that most of you probably won’t be using herbs to combat typhoid, malaria, rattlesnake bites or rabid dog bites.
However, there are lots of indications that we can commonly use Echinacea for. Keep in mind that, energetically, it is cooling and drying and is specific for signs of heat, ulcerations and fetid tissues.
There are a couple of considerations when dosing Echinacea. One, if you are dealing with a skin condition such as bug bites, wounds, acne, boils, etc, then it’s most effective when applied externally as well as taken internally. I personally like to take the tincture internally while applying a fomentation of the decocted root. You can also dilute the tincture for external use.
Secondly, consider how often you dose Echinacea. Eclectics used Echinacea in smaller doses frequently; the exact amounts and frequency varied by practitioner. When dealing with an acute condition, such as a cold or flu, taking 30-60 drops only three times a day is not ideal. Echinacea is better taken every hour or every couple hours.
Read Sue Kusch's article on Echinacea and learn how to make your own echinacea extract!
There is conflicting evidence that Echinacea may adversely effect people with autoimmune conditions. If you have an autoimmune condition it will be safest to avoid this herb.
For people experiencing frequent colds and the flu, avoid using Echinacea as a band-aid treatment for a weakened immune system. Instead, consider building therapies such as rest, a nutrient-dense diet, regular exercise, joy, and tonic immune-building herbs like astragalus.
You do not need to stop taking Echinacea after a certain number of days. This once popular belief came about from a misinterpreted German study.
The widespread use of Echinacea during the time of the Eclectics as well as the current market in North America and Europe has led to this plant’s demise in the wild. Never buy wildcrafted Echinacea. There is no longer a way for anyone to wildcraft this plant sustainably. Instead, consider growing this beautiful plant in your own garden or buy it from organic cultivated sources. And if you live in this plant’s natural habitat, go on walks and spread seeds.
"Under the older classification of remedies, echinacea would probably be classified as an antiseptic and alterative. Strictly speaking, it is practically impossible to classify an agent like echinacea by applying to it one or two words to indicate its virtues. The day is rapidly approaching when these qualifying terms will have no place in medicine, for they but inadequately convey to our minds the therapeutic possibilities of our drugs."
- King's American Dispensatory, 1898
Rosalee is an herbalist and author of the bestselling book Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients Into Foods & Remedies That Heal. She's a registered herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild and the Education Director for LearningHerbs. Read about how Rosalee went from having a terminal illness to being a bestselling author in her full story here.