Echinacea—popularly known as coneflower—originated in eastern North America and is part of the daisy family (Asteraceae). If you look closely at the centre of each flower, you’ll notice a spiny cone-shaped disc that resembles a sea urchin. That’s where this plant gets its name: from the Greek echino, which means “sea urchin.” Coneflower has long been popular in gardens, but it recently gained new popularity as an herbal remedy. An AC Nielsen MarketTrack report in 2010 showed Canadians spent more than $12 million on echinacea, with sales growing 7% each year. That makes it the fastest-growing remedy in the herbal category in Canada.
In North America, Aboriginal peoples have used echinacea for hundreds of years, and it has enjoyed a dramatic resurgence in the 20th century. It is frequently taken at the onset of a cold or flu to reduce the duration of the illness and the severity of symptoms. It is also believed to boost the immune system by stimulating the body’s white blood cells.
There is a growing body of research about its effectiveness. In one large study of 755 adults, researchers at Cardiff University found that both cold episodes and number of days with a cold were reduced by 25% in the group that took echinacea.
Research also suggests taking echinacea may increase red blood cell production and oxygen intake in healthy men, which may be linked to improved athletic performance. Combine this with the known immune-stimulating effects of echinacea, and it seems anyone who exercises at a gym, with its plethora of germs, should be taking this plant extract before and after workouts!
Cold or flu? Echinacea is for you! Rigorous trials have shown that echinacea extracts shorten the duration and lessen the symptoms of the common cold. Fresh-pressed juice and alcoholic tinctures of echinacea root are the forms most commonly studied and proven effective.
You can make your own tincture using the purple flower top and roots—that’s where the powerful medicine is found. Dig up 4 mature echinacea plants, chop off the roots and flower tops, and discard the leaves and stems (all the green stuff). Wash the flowers and give the roots a good scrubbing.
Using a sharp knife, chop the flowers and roots into fine pieces. Loosely pack them into a resealable glass jar (like a Mason jar) until two-thirds full. Pour in enough vodka (at least 80 proof) to fill the jar. Place wax paper over the jar and then screw the lid on tightly to seal it.
Label the jar, including the date prepared and the alcohol used. Set aside in a cool, dark place for at least 2 weeks, shaking the jar vigorously for 2 minutes every day.
After 2 weeks the tincture can be strained through a fine-mesh sieve (optional). Pour the tincture into a sterile dark-coloured glass container with a tight-fitting lid to protect it from light. The tincture will keep for at least a year stored in a cool, dark place.
At the first sign of a cold or flu, dilute 1 teaspoon of the tincture in 1 ounce of water and gargle for 1 minute before swallowing. Repeat 3 times daily. You will feel your tongue get slightly numb or tingly—this is normal. It indicates the activity of some of the phytochemicals in the echinacea and will last only a few minutes.
Got gingivitis? Swish with this! Gingivitis is chronic inflammation of the gums, causing them to bleed and swell. It is the most common type of gum disease and a common cause of tooth loss after age 35. Gingivitis is caused by plaque around the teeth. Flossing and brushing regularly can help treat and prevent it, but because recent research has linked gingivitis with heart disease, adding a third layer of protection is a good insurance plan. It turns out echinacea may help.
Open a new bottle of your favourite mouthwash and swish with the first dose (a capful, or about 1 ounce). Then pour 1 ounce of echinacea tincture into the bottle. Continue to use the mouthwash as directed. Do not swallow.
Weekend warrior? Add echinacea to your water bottle! Once you’re into exercise, you typically can’t stop. Some athletes and weekend warriors end up with a condition called overtraining syndrome, where performance begins to deteriorate and the immune system begins to malfunction. One sign is an increased incidence of upper respiratory tract infection after excessive exercise.
One way to help prevent the immune suppression caused by overtraining is adding echinacea to your water. Start by making echinacea tea. Boil 1 cup of water with ½ cup of freshly chopped echinacea flower and root for 10 minutes. Cool and strain through a fine-mesh sieve into 4 to 8 cups of water and consume as you normally would during exercise.
Hardiness: Perennial in zones 4 to 8 (some varieties hardy to zone 3)
Time to plant: Spring
Time to Harvest: Flowers in summer, roots in fall
Location: Full sun
Soil Type: Well-drained
Excerpt from: Power Plants © 2014 by Frank Ferragine and Bryce Wylde. Photographs © 2014 by Shannon J. Ross. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved. Available at www.harpercollins.ca.