You’ve probably heard about it, but do you know how to use echinacea successfully? This well-studied herb offers so many health benefits!
Echinacea is an interesting herb.
- Lots of people grow it as a landscape plant but don’t know it’s medicinal.
- Other people buy echinacea products for cold and flu season but don’t know how to correctly use them.
- And some people fall into both camps!
Echinacea is a valuable herbal remedy to know about. It offers many benefits and easily grows in most parts of the United States. But without some herbal understanding at your side, you might fall into the trap of taking echinacea and not getting any benefits from it.
When you actually know how to use echinacea, though, you’ll be able to enjoy better health with this lovely herb.
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A Gateway Herbal Remedy
Sitting on the high school volleyball bench as a teen, I mentioned to my coach that I was fighting off another sinus infection.
She looked at me and said, “Have you ever tried echinacea?”
She explained that it was an herb people took to help with colds, flu, and other kinds of sicknesses. I was intrigued. I had never heard of plants being used as medicine before!
So I bought my first bottle of echinacea capsules from a big box store that may or may not have been very effective. I don’t even remember if I started feeling better after using them. But a new world opened up to me as I got a little start with natural remedies.
Many people get their introduction to herbal medicine through echinacea, just like I did. Most healthcare providers know what it is and might even suggest it to patients who want to use herbal remedies. That’s great news!
But because it’s popular, a lot of people might try it without knowing how to use echinacea correctly or choose a quality product.
If you’re worried you’re in that club, don’t start stressing. Echinacea is an extremely safe herb, so you’re not likely to have any negative side effects from trying something off your grocery store shelf.
However, learning some foundational information about this herb can help you get the results you’re looking for. So if you want to feel your best with echinacea, keep reading.
Basic Information About Echinacea
Echinacea Species and Botanical Names
If you look through a seed catalog or go to a garden center, you can usually find numerous decorative Echinacea varieties. Instead of the standard purple coneflower, you can now find green, red, orange, yellow, and white variations, plus some in between!
While these decorative Echinaceas can be lovely in your landscaping, you’ll want to stick with a standard Echinacea species for medicinal use.
- Echinacea purpurea is the standard purple coneflower. It’s native to the eastern and midwestern areas of the United States. Most echinacea herbal products are made with E. purpurea.
- Echinacea pallida is very similar to E. purpurea, but its petals are more narrow and sometimes pale pink. It’s found in the midwestern prairies and is commonly known as pale purple coneflower.
- Echinacea angustifolia, or narrow-leaved coneflower, is the smallest echinacea and is prized for its medicinal taproot. You can usually find this echinacea in the western prairies and mountains of the US.
You can use any of these coneflower species as herbal remedies. Though their exact chemical constituents may vary between species, the overall actions in the body will be relatively similar.
Since I live in Ohio, I use E. purpurea in my apothecary. It’s a carefree plant that I grow without any effort in my garden. Not only does it give me excellent herbal medicine, but it also looks beautiful, attracts pollinators, and provides food for winter birds.
If you have a coneflower species growing at your home but aren’t sure if it’s good for medicine, here’s a trick. Take a little nibble out of a fresh leaf. Chew it for a few moments and see if your tongue starts to tingle. If it does, it has the medicinal actions you’re looking for.
The tingling isn’t signaling an allergic reaction. It’s from the alkylamides in the plant, one of the medicinal constituents that helps support the immune system.
How to Identify Echinacea
The three medicinal echinacea species will each look a little different, but they share some similar characteristics.
Echinacea is called coneflower for a reason. At the center of each flower is a prominent, spiky seed cone that enlarges as the flower matures. The center seed cone often takes on an orange hue when the flower is at its peak.
A single layer of thin, purple to pale pink petals surrounds the seed cone, drooping down as the flower matures.
The flowers grow up on tall, tough stems that are hollow inside. Coarse, toothed leaves grow up the sides of the stems. These leaves are covered in short, rough hairs that make the leaves feel a little scratchy to the touch.
Echinacea can range in height depending on the species. My E. purpurea plants reach 4-5 feet tall every year, while E. angustifolia plants tend to be much shorter.
Which Parts of Echinacea Are Used Medicinally?
Echinacea is an exceptionally useful plant. Every part of it, except for the stem, can be used medicinally!
Some people think that echinacea roots are the only medicinal part of the plant, but I haven’t found that to be the case. In fact, my favorite way to use echinacea is in a combined tincture that blends extracts of the seeds, roots, leaves, and flowers, all harvested at the right season.
Growing and Foraging Echinacea
Because echinacea has become such a popular herbal remedy, wild stands have become threatened in many areas.
This is really unnecessary since echinacea is such a simple plant to grow. You just have to find the variety that’s best suited to your area.
In fact, I tried for years to grow E. angustifolia to no avail. It’s just not suited to my location. But my E. purpurea plants are so vibrant and happy that I can regularly dig up plants for my friends to plant at their homes.
If you want to grow echinacea, you can order seeds from most garden catalogs, find transplants from fellow gardeners, or look at your local plant nursery. Since echinacea is a popular landscaping plant, you can even find it at most large chain home improvement stores.
If you’re unable to grow echinacea and don’t know anyone who does, you might be able to forage for it. However, make sure you know how to do that responsibly.
You’ll need to know where you can safely and legally gather the plants, if your local echinacea species are threatened in the wild, and how much you can take without stressing the colony.
If you don’t have a source for fresh echinacea, you can find organic, dry herb and root from Mountain Rose Herbs.
How to Harvest Echinacea
Harvesting fresh echinacea is very simple. The important thing is to harvest during the right season for the plant part you want.
You can harvest leaves and mature flowers during the summer. I like to look for flowers with prominent cones and fresh petals that haven’t been nibbled by insects. Just cut the flower stem from the plant, remove the leaves and flower heads for use, and compost the stems.
Or use them as silly natural straws, because kids think it’s fun.
Seeds are ready for harvest in the fall. As the flower petals die off and the plant begins to go dormant, the seedhead starts to dry out. You can cut them off down the stem and place them upside down into a paper bag to catch the seeds.
Early spring and late fall are good times to harvest mature roots that are a few years old. I prefer to dig them in the late fall after the plant is dormant. This gives me a chance to see which parts of my echinacea patch are getting crowded. Since echinacea is so happy in my garden, I need to remove extra plants. Harvesting the roots is a great way to do that.
After you harvest echinacea, you’ll want to start making your remedies quickly. You can also dry some for infusions and decoctions, but plan to dry a new batch each year. Echinacea is one of those herbs that tend to quickly lose its medicinal value as a dried herb in storage.
Purple Coneflower Benefits, Actions, & Herbal Energetics
Echinacea is an herbal powerhouse with many health benefits. People have used it for everything from snake bites to respiratory infections to skin infections and more.
- Echinacea is beneficial during disease because it is an antimicrobial, often useful with both bacterial and viral illnesses.
- It has immune-stimulant properties, helping the immune system respond to infections with antibodies and white blood cells.
- It is an anti-inflammatory herb, so it can reduce excess pain, redness, and swelling in the body.
- As a vulnerary herb, echinacea helps wounds heal faster.
- Especially beneficial during respiratory illnesses, echinacea is an anti-catarrhal herb, helping the body clear mucus.
- Echinacea helps keep the lymph fluid moving and lymph nodes clear, similar to the herb cleavers.
Echinacea is considered a cooling and drying herb. This connects to its anti-inflammatory properties.
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Why Echinacea Research is Mixed
Even though echinacea offers many health benefits, you can find a wide range of research findings on the plant. You can find studies that suggest it helps with the common cold, it’s safe to take but seems ineffective, or the evidence is mixed.
There are many reasons scientific research gives mixed conclusions on herbal remedies. Different herbal preparations, dosages, and treatment durations will likely give different results. Sometimes researchers have test subjects take an herb in a very nontraditional way or use the wrong plant part in their study, too.
For example, imagine taking 5 ml of potent, fresh, whole-plant echinacea tincture 4 times per day as soon as you start to notice cold symptoms. You continue doing that until your symptoms resolve a week later.
Now, imagine taking 1 capsule of powdered echinacea every day from an unknown source during cold and flu season. You don’t know if the powdered herbal material is from the flower, leaf, stalk, root, or seed. You also don’t know when the plant was harvested, dried, or powdered. Still, you take the capsule daily for 3 months.
Do you think those two experiences taking echinacea would give you similar results? I don’t think so, either!
This doesn’t mean scientific research is worthless or biased against herbal remedies, though. It just means you have to consider the details of any herbal research findings. And if you can compare them to traditional herbal use, you’re likely to come out with a better idea of how the herb actually works.
And Herbalists Don’t Always Agree, Either
Interestingly, some herbalists are less impressed with echinacea than you might expect.
In his book Herbal Antibiotics, Stephen Buhner says this of echinacea:
I really haven’t found it all that effective, in spite of what everyone says, and I avoid it if possible.
Matthew Wood, in his book The Earthwise Herbal, Volume 2, has this to say:
Echinacea is now a debacle damaging the reputation of herbal medicine, or is a belief that faddists cannot let go.
Considering the fact that echinacea became an herbal fad in the 1980s and 1990s, which led to ho-hum products being mass-produced and ineffectively used, you can understand why some herbalists choose other plants.
Still, most herbal reference books and herbalists give a favorable view of echinacea.
In my own experience as an herbalist, I’ve found echinacea to be most helpful anytime the lymphatic system is struggling to keep up with an infection. I’ve successfully used it in my home to help with painful insect stings, swollen lymph nodes, acne, and emerging infections, among other situations.
So despite the small herbal controversy surrounding the plant, I still consider it a must-have herbal remedy to keep on hand.
How to Use Echinacea as an Herbal Remedy
If you want to get positive results with echinacea, you have to use potent preparations. Many echinacea products on the market don’t have much to offer you because they’re old, stale, and no longer effective.
So rather than waste your money on dull capsules filled with old echinacea dust, try one of these remedy options instead.
- If you want to enjoy all the immune-stimulating and lymph-boosting properties of echinacea, try a fresh plant tincture. I like to use tinctures that combine the leaf, flower, seeds, and root. You can find these premade from reputable herb suppliers, like this one, or make your own full-spectrum echinacea tincture.
- For kids, a fresh echinacea glycerite can be great. Glycerites are weaker herbal extracts, but they’re perfect for kids since they taste sweet and there’s no alcohol in them. They’re easy to make, but you can also buy an echinacea glycerite here.
- You can make herbal infusions with echinacea leaf and flower. Use around 1 tablespoon of dried echinacea in every cup of freshly boiled water for a potent tea. You can also use the fresh leaves and flowers, but plan to use 1/4 cup of plant material for every cup of water. Steep the echinacea for up to 30 minutes before drinking.
- Dried echinacea root can be made into decoctions. To do this, you’ll take 2 teaspoons of dried echinacea root and simmer it in a cup of water for 15 minutes. Let the mixture continue to infuse for another 15 minutes before straining to drink.
- Echinacea makes a great herbal oil that you can use alone or turn into a powerful herbal salve. These topical preparations are an excellent way to use echinacea on skin conditions.
Should You Use Fresh or Dry Echinacea for Herbal Remedies?
I prefer using fresh echinacea in my tinctures and glycerites. But if you don’t grow or forage for echinacea, don’t panic.
You can still make remedies with dry echinacea. Just make sure you’re using potent plant material. Dried echinacea starts to deteriorate quickly.
If you’re not sure if your dry plant material is any good, try the nibble test again. If you chew a piece of it and it doesn’t make your tongue tingle, it’s time to send it to the compost pile. The echinacea, that is. Not your tongue.
A Word on Dosing
You might wonder how often to take echinacea. Should you take it once a day or multiple times a day?
Dosing really depends on what you’re using echinacea for. But for any kind of immune-supportive need, it’s better to take multiple doses of echinacea throughout the day. In fact, if I’m coming down with something, I might take a teaspoon of echinacea tincture every hour or two for the first day. As my symptoms improve, I’ll decrease the dose to 3-4 times per day.
Echinacea is a very safe herb, so there’s little worry about taking too much.
You can take echinacea until your symptoms improve. In most cases, you won’t need to take it for longer than two weeks, but that will depend on your unique situation. You can always check with an herbalist if you’re not sure.
What About Timing?
Some people take echinacea all through cold and flu season, thinking it offers the same benefits as elderberry syrup. And while that won’t hurt anyone, it’s not the best way to take this herb. In fact, it’s likely not going to do any good at all.
The best time to take echinacea is at the start of an infection. As soon as you feel your throat get a little sore or your lymph nodes start to swell a little, that’s echinacea time.
You could also take this herb for a few days when you know you’ve been exposed to something. If you don’t end up sick, you can stop taking it. I prefer taking elderberry syrup or fire cider in this situation, but it’s not an unreasonable way to use echinacea.
Answering Important Safety Questions
Echinacea is generally safe for most people, including children and pregnant women (when taken short-term for acute infections). However, some people should be careful with this herb.
Echinacea is in the Asteraceae family. So if you’re allergic to daisy family plants, you should approach echinacea with caution. You might be able to take it with no problems, but start slow and small to be sure. Since the root doesn’t contain any pollen, you might find you can safely take it even if the flower bothers you.
Some people with autoimmune conditions notice their symptoms get worse after taking echinacea. If you deal with autoimmunity, pay attention to how you feel when you use echinacea.
Since echinacea supports immune system function, you should also avoid echinacea if you need to take immune-suppressive medications.
Some of the criticisms around echinacea are true. It isn’t an herbal cure-all you can take year-round for bullet-proof immunity.
But it doesn’t have to be to earn a spot on your natural medicine cabinet shelf!
When you know how to use echinacea, you can appreciate it for what it offers. All it takes is the right kind of preparation made from potent plant material, taken in the right situation, and you’ll soon find it’s an effective herbal remedy.
You might even put it in your landscaping if it isn’t growing there already!
What kind of experience do you have using echinacea?