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."
American Dispensatory is an Eclectic materia medica book first
published in 1854. Echinacea boasts quite a long entry in this book and
it certainly was a darling of the Eclectics. Reading the above quote we
can see the author was very opposed to simplifying one of their greatest
herbs to an “antiseptic” and an “alterative”.
That kind of makes me wonder if they are rolling over in their graves now that their beloved herb has been mass marketed around the world as the “cold and flu” herb.
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 tribes in a wide variety of ways, it became an official
part of the botanical medicine in the 1880‘s. Its use became popularized
and within decades it was considered one of the most important herbs in
Were people impressed with its ability to fight off a cold or flu?
Actually, the first popularized use of echinacea was for rattlesnake bites!
references say Dr. Meyer had learned about using Echinacea for snake
bites from a Native American woman. He then experimented with it for a
number of years before going to John King and John Uri Lloyd with his
findings. He claimed he had treated 613 cases of rattlesnake bites in
animals and humans using his special blend of herbs (Echinacea, hops and
wormwood). At first he was brushed aside and ridiculed for making such
Meyer offered to send John King a rattlesnake so that he could
experiment with treating animals who had been bitten. Dr. King declined.
Dr. Meyer then offered to travel to Dr. King and allow himself to be
bitten by the snake to prove the efficacy of his herbs in person. Dr.
King again declined, but the persistence of Dr. Meyer inspired him to
take a closer look at this plant.
Although Dr. Meyer didn’t get bit by the rattlesnake in Dr. King’s presence, there are reports of him willingly submitting to this venomous reptile in order to prove his remedy’s effectiveness. In 1919 the Eclectic physician Ellingwood reported that Dr. Meyer willingly injected himself with the venom of a rattlesnake on his right hand. After six hours significant swelling had reached his elbow. He then dosed himself with his blend of herbs, taking them both internally and externally, went to sleep and woke up four hours later to find the pain and swelling was gone.
In this day and age, if you are hiking through rattlesnake country, certainly take your echinacea tincture along for the ride. If you happen to get bitten by this venomous creature, take your echinacea tincture liberally - on your way to the hospital.
Meyer popularized Echinacea through his rattlesnake exploits but he
also claimed it could cure a wide range of ailments. Besides
ameliorating the bites and stings of venomous creatures (including
snakes, scorpions, spiders, bees, etc) he also used it for serious
infections like typhoid and malarial fever, cholera, trichinosis, and
what would later be known as strep. He used it for a variety of “bad
blood” conditions such as boils, carbuncles, acne, hemorrhoids, eczema
and abscesses. And yes, he even used it for what could be cold and flu
symptoms, nasal and pharyngeal catarrh.
Sounds too good to be true?
that time in history it was common to sell “snake medicine,” patented
medicines making claims of outrageous miracle cures. And it was for this
reason that Dr. Meyer was at first brushed aside as a quack.
But after the Eclectic physicians really started to work with Echinacea, all of Dr. Meyers’ claims were proven true.
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."
- Ellingwood, 1919
The Eclectics later wrote extensively about Echinacea and used it for many of the same ailments that Dr. Meyer did, as well as rabid dog bites, rheumatism, syphilis, uterine infections, vaginal infections, gonorrhea, blood poisoning and cerebral meningitis. They also used it for prolonged infections due to poison ivy/oak poisoning.
Pretty amazing for a plant pigeon-holed as the cold and flu herb!
Echinacea angustifolia on a farm
How Echinacea Works
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.
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.
Eclectics considered Echinacea, above all, to be an alterative. In his book on Echinacea, herbalist Paul Bergner says of alterative: “The term comes from the word “to alter,” meaning to change the composition and quality of the extracellular fluid and blood.” He then goes on to quote Dr. Harvey Felter as stating that, “if there is any meaning in the term alterative, it is expressed in the therapy of Echinacea.”
Herbalists also classify Echinacea as a lymphagogue, which means it promotes the flow of the lymphatic fluids and can also include the process of phagocytosis.
Bergner maintains that Echinacea not only promotes the flow of lymph and stimulates the immune system at the level of white blood cells, but that it also promotes blood circulation. So it not only increases the actions of the immune system, it also delivers those natural defenses to the area where it is needed.
When you taste Echinacea you’ll immediately notice a tingly sensation on your tongue followed by profuse saliva. This action is called a sialagogue. By promoting the flow of saliva, Echinacea can address mouth infections and promote digestion. According to Paul Bergner, Echinacea was used as a dental remedy by many Native American tribes, including the Omaha Ponca, Oglala Dakota, Cheyenne, Crow and Commanche.
Echinacea can lower fevers by stopping the spread of infection. It was used extensively by the Eclectics as an antiseptic and they used it to clean wounds, to sterilize the skin and surgical instruments before surgery.
Chances are, most of you probably won’t be using herbs to combat typhoid or malaria or rattlesnake bites or rabid dog bites.
However, there are lots of common indications for Echinacea. Keep in mind that, energetically, it is cooling and drying and is specific for signs of heat, ulcerations and fetid tissues.
health complaints that fall under these categories are ulcers that
won’t heal, acne, infections and boils (Echinacea is my favorite remedy
for boils). It is commonly used for vaginal and urinary infections.
are a couple of considerations with the Echinacea dosage. One, if you are
dealing with something on the external surface of the skin, 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 echinacea root.
You can also dilute the echinacea tincture for external use.
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, taking 30-60 drops
only three times a day is not ideal. Echinacea is better taken every
hour or every couple hours.
about using Echinacea for colds and flu? No doubt that taken at the
first sign of a cold or flu it can stop the illness from progressing.
However, one thing to consider is that we don’t want to use Echinacea as
a band-aid for a weakened immune system brought on by poor diet and
lifestyle choices. If someone is frequently coming down with colds and
flu, consider addressing the weakened immune system with building
therapies such as rest, a nutrient-dense diet, regular exercise, joy, and
tonic immune-building herbs like astragalus.
In Volume 14, Number 2 of the Medical Herbalism Journal, herbalist Paul Bergner suggests this protocol when working with Echinacea for abating upper respiratory infections:
A typical protocol of a contemporary North American medical herbalist for the use of Echinacea in the common cold:
1) A well-made tincture of the root of Echinacea angustifolia or Echinacea purpurea.
2) The medicine administered at first onset of symptoms.
3) A high dose of a teaspoon or more per hour for the first few hours, then tapering to 4 tsp per day on the second day and continuing while symptoms are present.
4) Aggressive treatment with Echinacea, especially for those with chronic immune weakness rather than those in generally good health who happen to have a minor respiratory infection.
one need to stop taking Echinacea after a certain number of days? This
once popular belief came about from a misinterpreted German study. The
Eclectics used Echinacea for 9 months or more without any problems.
Should Echinacea be avoided by those with auto-immune diseases? There have been some problems associated with those who have auto-immune conditions and some herbalists say it should be avoided by those populations. However, this is a contentious issue in the herbal world and, in reality, while Echinacea may not work for some people with autoimmunity, it may work for others.
Is Echinacea angustifolia better than the other varieties? I don’t think there is a black and white answer to this. Some herbalists maintain that Echinacea angustifolia root is the best material to make Echinacea products from. But plants are hard to pin down and you can find many differences between plants of the same species (depending on growing conditions, etc). For me, the most important thing is that, whatever plant you are using, it has that strong special Echinacea zing when you taste it.
One thing to note is that Echinacea angustifolia is harder to grow than E. purpurea and grows less robustly. Therefore, it costs more.
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.
angustifolia and Echinacea purpurea are the most commonly used species for
medicine while Echinacea pallida is sometimes used. For this botanical
exploration we’ll look at E. angustifolia and E. purpurea.
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
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, ever 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 its seeds.
I hope after reading this article you’ll have a new appreciation for this “cold and flu” herb. Remember, anytime marketing sums up a plant with a couple of words there is going to be a much larger picture of what it does as well as how we use it. Echinacea offers us a treasure chest of important remedies - let’s reclaim their varied uses and support the growth of this plant, both in our gardens and in the wild.
Paul Bergner wrote THE book on Echinacea. I highly recommend it if you are interested in learning more about this plant. You can find this book for super cheap at used book stores.
The Healing Power of Echinacea & Goldenseal, Paul Bergner
This monograph was originally written for HerbMentor.com. If you love herbs then I highly recommend subscribing to the site.
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.