Sometimes, I forget to remember that getting started with medicinal plants can be overwhelming. I grew up running around health food stores with my mom, and frankly, she’s forgotten more about herbal medicine than most folks ever know. Lucky for me, some of that knowledge and a whole lot of the interest rubbed off. I’ve taken that interest and expanded it into not only consuming plant-based remedies, but also growing and preparing them. Soon, I’ll share a bit about a useful framework for thinking about medicinal plants, but for today, I thought I’d start with a classic—Echinacea.
As a child, I remember complaining about feeling ill, only to be given an Echinacea-goldenseal combination. Now, that may be anecdotal evidence, but I will say I rarely got truly sick, even when very young. Though scientific studies are mixed about the reliability of this plant as an immune booster, it’s been in use in Native American healing for centuries, and I certainly swear by it.
Aside from its medicinal uses, Echinacea is a truly beautiful plant—and easy to grow, which makes it one of my favorites. It’s often called by the term “coneflower” due to its shape. When I see it, I can’t help but be pulled in my mind to the diverse woodland areas of the Ozarks.
Echinacea is a fairly common plant in North America consisting of nine separate species, but it is Echinacea purpurea that has been tied to folk and Native American remedies. Both the roots and leaves may be used.
Echinacea may be purchased in capsule form at the health food store, or grown in your garden for personal use. Its most common use is for boosting the immune system—rather than a daily supplement, it’s taken when you’re starting to come down with something, or, if people around you are becoming ill and you hope to prevent illness in yourself. It’s noticeably less effective when taken after you’ve already begun showing symptoms of illness.
Echinacea purpurea is most prevalent in the Ozarks, where it grows readily. Though it is medicinal, it’s frequently grown in native gardens due to its pretty blooms that attract bees and butterflies like a magnet. Echinacea purpurea adapts well to moist or dry soil, making it ideal for those long summer dry spells we experience so often in Arkansas and other areas of the South. It will also tolerate most types of soil well, but it absolutely must be grown in sun.
To save seed, just wait until the flower petals begin to fall off and then test the heads every few days—once they break up easily in your hand, they’re ready to be collected and stored.
Echinacea is a self-sowing perennial, so once your plant is established, you should have a nice stand of it year after year. Pulling the root of course kills the plant, so though this is where the medicinal properties are most concentrated, it’s a better plan to pull the petals from the flowers for use in any remedies.
To use and store Echinacea for its medicinal purposes, you’ll likely want to make a tincture, as it lasts longest and is more concentrated than using the dried leaves for tea—and since the tea isn’t particularly palatable, the tincture is also more likely to be used if needed. To make a tincture, simply gather a substantial amount of leaves—say, an ounce or a little more by weight—and combine with ten fluid ounces of alcohol. Everclear is commonly used where legal, while vodka is a fine substitute. Let the leaves steep in the fluid out of direct light for a month or two. Strain. Pour into clean glass jars for storage.
Dosage: 10-30 drops every four hours as needed.
* Use caution when first taking Echinacea, as it can cause reactions in those sensitive to ragweed.
Balch, Phyllis A. Prescription for Nutritional Healing. 3rd Edition.