Echinacea species – Sunflower family
by Greg Tilford c.2010
Appearance: Echinacea (also known as “Purple Coneflower;”) is a taprooted perennial which may grow as high as 40″ . Nine species of Echinacea are native to North America; all have flowers with distinctive, cone-like central disks. The rays of most species droop away from the disk when mature; with the most common species ranging in color from pale to dark purple. Echinacea purpurea (illus.) is by far the most widely distributed species in North America. For several decades this species has become very popular as a medicinal herb and garden flower. Dozens of cultivars of E. purpurea have been developed; and it is estimated that the entire world market supply of this species comes from cultivated plants. However, several other species, such as E. angustifolia and E. pallida are quickly succumbing to commercial and environmental pressures.
Habitat & Range: In the West, Echinacea is largely an introduced plant. Partial to open plains and wood lands, it’s natural range once extended from Eastern Canada, south into the Ozarks, and west throughout the corn belt states, to the east slopes of the Rockies. Market pressures and continuing loss of habitat have eliminated most of the wild stands of Echinacea. Its range continues to shrink… and today only small, isolated populations of wild Echinacea survive west of the Missouri River.
Cycle & Bloom Season: A perennial which blooms early to late summer (depending on climate)
Parts Used: Most often the root is used. The leaves, stems, and flowers are useful too, although they are much weaker medicine.
Actions: Immunostimulant, antimicrobial.
Affinities: Immune system, lymph system, urinary tract.
Preparation: Tincture, decoction, dried and powdered root, or direct feeding of the fresh leaves, stems and flowers.
Specific Uses: First and foremost, echinacea is an immune-supporting herb — it serves to support intact immune functions through stimulatory and strengthening actions at various levels within the body.
No single constituent contained in the root or flowering upper parts of echinacea can be attributed to the immune-tonifying functions of this plant. Instead, most herbalists agree that the complex structure of this plant should be viewed as a therapeutic synergy of dozens of biochemical influences. However, a few key constituents stand out as strong clues into exactly how echinacea works.
A great deal of scientific research has identified echinacea’s most influential immunostimulatory components as an extensive array of caffeic acids, volatile oils, polysaccharides, polyenes, polyines, and isobutylamides1,2. In simpler terms: echinacea’s immunostimulatory qualities are derived from a wide array of chemical compounds that allow the plant to be used in a variety of forms without sacrificing its effectiveness. For instance, while many of the acid constituents in echinacea are poorly water soluble and require a strong alcohol base to extract them into a tincture form, the plant’s polysaccharide constituents are exactly the opposite — they are easily extracted into water — and in fact are largely destroyed by alcohol. Since both of these chemical groups have been shown to possess strong immunostimulatory qualities, it seems that the plant is naturally designed to accommodate a wide variety of metabolic needs.
Echinacea serves to support disease resistance several ways. At blood level, it accelerates phagocytosis; the means by which macrophages and other antibodies attack and remove bacteria. At cellular levels, echinacea helps to reduce the production of an enzyme that breaks down hyaluronic acid; the compound which occurs between cells to bind them together. By helping to eliminate this enzyme at the onset of an infection, it is believed that body tissues are less pervious to invading microbes, and in turn the invaders are more vulnerable to scavenging antibodies that have already been stimulated into action. Echinacea has also been shown to stimulate the lymph system, thus helping the body in eliminating waste materials from the tissues, and it possesses measurable antimicrobial qualities which serve to assist the body’s fight against infection by intervening with invading bacteria at the point of invasion.
Echinacea’s multi-directional 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 employed at the first onset of infectious symptoms, otherwise its activity will amount to a losing battle against microbiotic opponents that have already fortified their positions in the body.
Learn to recognize minute variances in your animal’s behavior and feeding habits. Take extra time to give your pet a cursory examination during your daily grooming session or play times, and look for anything which may point to the introduction of an infection — an inflamed gum, a swollen flea bite, or a slightly runny nose may be indicators for the proactive use of echinacea. If you are too late, and an infection has set in, a great deal of echinacea’s potential effectiveness has been lost, and it’s time to consider calling in some other troops from the herbal army. Don’t despair… try boosting echinacea with a small percentage of an antiseptic herb such as oregon grape, usnea , or organically grown goldenseal. By combining echinacea with about 10% of one of these herbs, you will be offering a small measure of direct antiseptic intervention, without compromising populations of the beneficial microbes the body needs to help with its fight. Topical application of antiseptics, directly onto the point of infection, will also aid in the healing effort.
So how much echinacea should you give?… For how long?… In what form?
Many people think that the potency of an echinacea preparation can be determined by the intensity of the tingling sensation it causes when placed on the tongue. If this is your current method of judging echinacea preparations, please abandon it — a great deal of recent and continuing research has shown that the isobutylmides that are responsible for this sensation represent only a fragment of echinacea’s active constituents, and that their absence may not effect the overall effectiveness of echinacea3,. In fact, the more we learn about echinacea, the more complex and diverse its medicinal actions become.
There is no best kind of echinacea preparation per se — as long as care and quality has gone into propagation, harvest, and manufacture of the end product, all forms of echinacea preparations will contain adequate medicinal constituents to get the job done. The question of what form of preparation to use internally in your animal hinges on what it takes to get a therapeutic quantity into the animal. Echinacea is by no means a pleasant -tasting herb, and its administration is compounded when we consider the short digestive tracts and faster metabolisms of dogs and cats. In these animals, the problem isn’t finding a preparation that contains high enough concentrations of active constituents, but finding one that is both palatable and fully assimilable by their short digestive tracts. Cats in particular, don’t like alcohol and the sour-tingle that these extracts impart on the tongue (they typically foam at the mouth and sometimes act like you are force-feeding them a vial, poisonous fluid from the bowels of hell). Dogs typically drink from toilets without complaint, and are somewhat less picky — but gel caps will often pass directly through them, undigested. Therefore, I prefer to use a low-alcohol, glycerin extract for the carnivores. Glycerin-based preparations are low in tongue-tingling isobutylmides, but rich in readily-available polysaccharide constituents, and the sweet taste of the vegetable glycerin helps mask the unpleasant flavor of the herb. Herbivores are naturally designed to efficiently metabolize plant materials, and horses, goats, llamas and other large animals can be fed the flowering plants — or dried root can be added to their feed.
Dosage and duration of use is variable upon the needs and individual nuances of the animal, but a conservative rule for dogs and cats is to give 12 – 25 drops of the tincture, three times daily. Horses, cattle, sheep, and other large animals can be fed a couple of handsfull of the dried, whole flowering herb per day. Several high quality, powdered echinacea preparations are now available for equines and other large animals as well… use them as directed by your veterinarian or as suggested on the label.
In recent years, a rather heated controversy has arisen within the herbalist community concerning how long echinacea can be used before the body builds a tolerance to its immune stimulating actions. In a German study conducted in 1989, a diminished response to echinacea was recorded in human subjects, after five to ten days of normal dose administration4. This raised questions of whether or not echinacea is effective when used over a long term. However, closer scrutiny of this study has since concluded that while echinacea’s activity does fall off sharply after about five days of use, its long term use still maintains a higher level of immune system activity than that observed prior to its initial administration. However, many herbalists believe that breaking the continuity of echinacea use every 5 to 10 days will allow for a greater immune boost, each time the therapy is reestablished after a two or three day break. I agree, and believe that a break is necessary in any case, to monitor the unassisted recovery of the animal. Five days on; two or three days off is a good guideline to follow.
Aside from its immune-stimulating qualities, echinacea is a very good antimicrobial for the mouth and urinary tract. It is very useful for treating bacterial or fungal infections of the bladder or urethra, especially when added to a demulcent and anti-inflammatory combination of herbs (see “Genitourinary Problems”). Echinacea also has a long-standing reputation as a snake bite remedy. Used internally and externally simultaneously, the herb is said to antidote the venom. Although little scientific evidence exists to support such claims, hundreds of years worth of use amounts to more than folkloric trivia. Knowing that about 85% of rattlesnake bites involve only a partial injection of venom (or no injection at all), its is likely that echinacea serves to more to ward off infection and prevent tissue damage than to actually nullify the venom. Echinacea works very well at releiving the pain and swelling of most insect bites and stings, especially when applied as a clay poultice. See “Bites and Stings”, and the chapter on making herbal preparations for more information and recipes.
Echinacea is also used with some success for colic in horses; with free-feeding of the fresh leaves, stems, and flowers being the most popular method of administration.
Availability: Various preparations of echinacea are widely available through health product retailers. The seeds and plants are available through most nurseries. Because of continuing over-harvest, wild stands of this plant are at at risk of disappearing forever. Please make sure that the echinacea you are using is from cultivated sources.
Propagation & Harvest: Echinacea purpurea, the primary echinacea of commerce, is easy to grow and requires little care once the plants are established. Seeds require cold, damp stratification, and light to break their dormancy. This means that the seeds must be sown on top of the soil, or covered with just a trace of soil in order to germinate.
Roots must be at least three years old to be of medicinal value.
Varieties such as E. pallida and E. angustifolia are much more finicky, but not impossible to grow in the garden . However, before you choose to pull your hair out to grow these varieties, bear in mind that despite what herbalists once thought, the gardener-friendly Echinacea purpurea provides medicine which is as potent as any others.
Plants are hardy to at least zone 4, and are very drought tolerant when mature. A well-established stand of echinacea will reseed itself, and mature plants can bear roots of up to three pounds each.
Dig mature echinacea roots from the garden after the plant has gone dormant for the winter; after the plants’ third year of growth has been completed. The roots can be chopped and tinctured while fresh, or dried and ground for use in teas. The dried roots can be tinctured as well.
Leaves, stems, and flowers can be selectively harvested when they are in full bloom, in mid-summer. If you opt to do this, bear in mind that a preponderance of leaves and flowers must remain on the plants to provide life-support for the roots and to produce viable seeds.
Alternatives and Adjuncts: Virtually any of the alterative;, diuretic;, cholagogue;, or expectorant ;herbs combine well with echinacea to support the body through various forms of microbial infection. To help fight infections of the mouth,; digestive tractinfections of;, or urinary tract, echinacea serves as an excellent adjunct to Oregon grape; or couchgrass. As a lymphatic, echinacea combines well with cleavers.
Cautions & Comments: Because echinacea stimulates immune functions, it should not be used in situations where abnormal immune functions are already present. This would include any disease where the immune system actually works against itself, such as in multiple sclerosis, leukosis (where an overpopulation of white blood cells already exists), diabetes mellitus, feline AIDS, or any condition which involves an increased immune response. When used in the presence of any of these diseases, echinacea can have aggravating effects. In circumstances where immune function is diminished and white blood counts are low, it has been theorized that echinacea may cause a dangerous stimulatory response, triggering invading microbes to reproduce faster.
Remember… echinacea’s roles are always complimentary to a healthy immune system. Consult your holistic veterinarian if you are uncertain of your animal’s level of disease resistence, before using echinacea.
1. Bauer, R. Wagner, H. “Echinacea — der sonehut — stand der forshung”. Zeitschrift fur Phytotherapie 9:151-159, 1988
2. Bauer, R. Wagner, H. “Echinacea species as potential immunostimulatory drugs”. In: Wagner, H., Farnsworth, N.R. (eds.), Economic and medicinal Plant Research. Volume 5, New York: Academic Press, pp. 253-351, 1991.
3. Foster, Steven, “Echinacea – The Cold & Flu remedy”. Alternative Complimentary Therapies, Vol. 1, No. 4, 1995.
4. Jurcic, K, Melchart, D, Holsmann, M, Martin, P, et al. “Zwei probandenstudien zur stimulierung der granulozytenphagozytose durch echinacea-extract-haltige praparate.” Zeitschrift fur Phytotherapie, 1989; 10:67-70.