Posted on April 26, 2018 0
By: Sharon Falsetto, BA (Hons), NAHA Certified Professional Aromatherapist®
Echinacea is a flower that has long caught my eye in the aromatic garden, partly because it is such a beautiful flower to photograph, but also because it is such a useful flower to have around for apothecary purposes. Echinacea is commonly known by the name coneflower, and it is easy to see how it attained this particular name when viewed in profile from a photographer's perspective . As a member of the “daisy” family, echinacea has all of the visual characteristics of its close relative the sunflower Helanthius annuum), another of my garden favorites .
However, echinacea is more than just a “pretty face” in the garden. It has traditionally been used as a medicinal herb, but most recently for the immune system. The roots are the main part of the plant which are used medicinally, but the flowers and leaves can also be used in an infused oil. Aromatherapists might not be as familiar with echinacea as herbalists, probably because this strikingly beautiful flower is not aromatic. However, I aim to address any reservations that aromatherapists may have in using this plant as part of their toolbox, in this article.
Botanical Name: Echinacea spp. Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea pallida are used medicinally. Echinacea is a derivation of the Greek word, echinos, for hedgehog.1
Synonyms: Coneflower, purple (cone) flower, rudbeckia, 2 Indian snakeroot (19th century American name).3
Botanical Family: Asteraceae.
Plant Characteristics: An herbaceous (woody) perennial plant which is capable of growing up to four feet in height. It is recognizable by its upright stalk and a cone-shaped flowering head.
Flowers: Like its close relative, the sunflower, the flowering head is actually made up of lots and lots of individual flowers (called disk florets in echinacea's case). These disk florets possess both male and female organs and are the fertile part of the plant. Ray florets (commonly known as petals) surround the disk florets and are usually dark pink or purple in color, although some species may also be white or yellow. The ray florets are sterile. The entire flower head is botanically known as an interflorescence.
Leaves: The alternate leaves are dark-green in color, hairy, and rough to the touch; they vary from ovate to lanceolate in shape, depending upon the exact species.
Roots: Echinacea grows from taproots, the part of the plant which is considered most valuable medicinally. Taproots are common in dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), parsley (Petroselinum crispum), and fir trees.
Plant Distribution: Echinacea is found in eastern and central areas of North America, although many cultivars exist and you can find it in most gardens across the United States with the right growing conditions.
Natural Habitat: In its natural environment, echinacea loves wooded areas and prairie lands. However, it is an easy plant to grow in the garden. It is both heat and drought tolerant. It likes full sun but, especially in a hot summer climate like mine here in northern Arizona, a small amount of shade is welcome during the hottest part of the day.
How to Grow from Seed: Echinacea requires an organic, well-drained soil to bloom proficiently. It is a self-seeder, so once you have this plant in your garden, it will self-seed itself unless you pull the seed heads before they develop. Echinacea is a seed which does best when cold stratified indoors, or sown when there is still a light frost
outdoors. It is an early spring starter to get going in comparison to many other plants which are sown after the average last frost date.
Plant Zones: 3 to 9.4 Echinacea flowers during the summer months in the northern hemisphere.
Garden Benefits: Echinacea is loved by bees and butterflies so it will attract these desirable pollinators to your garden during the summer months. In winter, if the seed heads are left to stand and dry out, echinacea seed heads will strike a stark feature on the landscape.
Beware: Although there are many cultivars and hybrids of echinacea available, if growing for medicinal benefits, make sure you obtain the species relevant to this use (see under Botanical Profile).
Echinacea was used extensively by Native American people, probably because of its indigenous beginnings in North America. For example, it was used as a remedy for toothache by the Comanche people, and a remedy for snake bites by the Sioux people.3 It is thought that native American people were using echinacea for as long as 400 years before new settlers arrived in the United States.5 Echinacea consequently became of interest to pilgrims and settlers of North America and it became known for its use with rheumatism, application in the use of wounds and burns, and neuralgia.6
Echinacea was first prepared commercially in the late 19th century and it soon rose to become the most popular plant preparation in the United States.6 Interest then grew in echinacea in Europe, particularly in echinacea's immunostimulant properties, when chemists and scientists showed interest in its major chemical components (see under Chemistry Profile). Indeed, today echinacea is a major medicinal in the herbalist's tool box as an immunostimulant and immune system power fighter with regard to colds, flu, and coughs.
Echinacea purpurea contains the key components of polysaccharides, alkylamides (isobutylamides), and caffeic acid esters (echinacoside and cynarin).3
A research study conducted on the aerial parts of Echinacea purpurea found the following sixteen chemical compounds:
“(2S)-1-O-octacosanoyl glycerol (1), (5R,6S)-6-hydroxy-6-((E)-3-hydroxybut-1-enyl)-1,1, 5-trimethylcyclohexanone (2), (3S, 6E, 10R)-3, 10, 11-trihydroxy-3, 7, 11-trimethyl-dodeca-1, 6-diene (3), negunfurol (4), schensianol A (5), ent-4 (15) -eudesmene-1beta, 6alpha-diol (6), (E) -5-hydroxy-N-isobutylpentadec-2-enamide (7), syringaresinol (8), quercetin (9), ethyl laurate (10), ethyl caffeate (11), ferulic acid (12), alpha-spinasterol (13), stigmasterol (14), beta-daucosterol (15), octacosanoic acid (16).”5
Another research study conducted on the leaf and root of the Echinacea species found that essential oils extracted from each plant part produced “25 and 31 different compounds respectively.”7 These included “germacrene D, naphthalene, caryophyllene oxide, α-phellandrene and α-cadinol.”8
It should be noted that there will be variations in chemical composition between different plant parts of Echinacea spp., in addition to varying plant species, location in which the plant is grown, extraction and assessment methods, time of harvest/extraction, and other environmental factors.
The main chemical components of echinacea (as discussed under Chemistry Profile) can be broken down as follows into the following therapeutic properties:
Alkylamides: Anti-bacterial, anti-fungal
Other therapeutic actions of echinacea are: Antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, detoxifying,3 and anti-viral.2,10
Echinacea is considered to be of the greatest value as a boost to the immune system and various research studies support the theory that it can boost white blood cell count and show “improved erythrocyte antioxidant defences.”11 Some studies show that taking echinacea at the onset of a cold can reduce cold symptoms and reduce the seriousness of the cold.5 Herbalists also recommend the use of echinacea for skin issues such as acne and boils, cold sores, canker sores, urinary and fungal infections, bites, earache, and asthma.3
Note that the amount of dosage, and the method of administration, of echinacea may affect the degree of success in addressing each of these problems.
Ways to Use Echinacea
Some of the ways in which echinacea can be used are:
decoction of the root*
tincture of the root
poultice of the root (usually in combination with another plant such as calendula (Calendula officinalis))
glycerite of the root
infused oil (not to be confused with an infusion/tea) of the flowers and leaves.
*Note: A decoction, rather than a tea or infusion, is made from the roots as it is harder to extract plant materials such as roots, bark, and nuts when compared to flowers and leaves of a plant. The difference between a decoction and a tea/infusion is in the method of making it and/or the time involved in the process.
In conclusion, echinacea is one of the most valuable herbs to have in your toolbox for its immune system boosting properties, among other benefits. The plant can be prepared and combined with aromatic oils for ease of use by both the aromatherapist and the herbalist. Finally, it is a valued garden plant due to its ability to attract pollinators to the garden, and its visual appeal to garden visitors.
If there is one new plant you are thinking about adding to your garden this year, and/or considering using in your aromatherapy practice, contemplate the value of echinacea.
Echinacea Infused Oil
The resulting infused oil can be used to make a salve or balm.
To make an infused oil:
Collect together the fresh leaves and flowers of echinacea from your garden. Lay the plant material on tissue paper to dry for a few days. Make sure that the plant material will be undisturbed and in a good place for drying. Alternatively, you can tie a piece of string around the stems of the flowers and hang them up to dry in warm place.
After the plant material has dried, place the material into a suitable container (such as a Mason jar) and fill it up with an appropriate carrier oil. Pack it as tightly as you can. I recommend using sunflower (Helanthius annuum) oil for this infusion. You need just enough carrier oil to cover the plant material. Leave the container in the sunshine and heat for one to two weeks; you can add in more plant material and shake the jar intermittently. I recommend checking on the infusion every couple of days.
After one to two weeks, separate the plant material from the oil by using a sieve or strainer.
Echinacea Skin Salve Soother
A skin-friendly recipe to ease bites, sores, and stings. This recipe makes 4 oz. of salve base.
1 oz. beeswax
3.5 oz. echinacea-infused sunflower oil
0.5 oz. rosehip (Rosa rubiginosa) seed oil
15 drops geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)
15 drops lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
10 drops frankincense (Boswellia carteri)
5 drops rose (Rosa x damascena)
Instructions for Use:
Blend together the essential oils in a small glass cup and set aside.
Heat up regular water in a small pan. Place a Pyrex glass measuring cup containing the beeswax into the pan and wait for the beeswax to melt.
Once the beeswax is melted, take off the heat and immediately stir in the rosehip oil and echinacea-infused sunflower oil, followed by the essential oil blend that you prepared earlier.
Pour the finished product into salve tins, before the mix starts to solidify. If the liquid begins to solidify before you have finished pouring it into the tins, place it back on the heat for as long as needed. However, try not to do this if at all possible, once the essential oil blend has been added, as it will destroy the therapeutic properties of the essential oils.
Place the lids on the salve tins and allow the mixture to cool and solidify.
Instructions for Application:
Apply a small amount of the salve to your finger tip and rub gently over to bites, sores, or stings at the first sign of inflammation or redness. Repeat as necessary.
Cautions for Use:
If you intend to use this blend with children, reduce the quantity of essential oils used by half (i.e. to a 1% dilution). Possible skin sensitivity in some individuals.
Echinacea Immune Boosting Decoction
This decoction, like a tea, can be drank daily, up to four times a day, for several months, to help boost the immune system.
one teaspoon of dried echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia) root OR two tablespoons of fresh echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia) root
one cup of water
Instructions for Use:
Decoct the roots by adding them to a cup of boiling water in a small pan.
Simmer gently over a low heat for fifteen to twenty minutes. Keep the pan tightly covered.
Remove from the heat.
Strain the blend using a sieve or kitchen strainer.
Drink immediately. Alternatively, you can allow the plant material to soak further over night before straining the blend the next day.
Cautions for Use: For adult use only.
Kew Science website, Echinacea purpurea (L.) Moench, accessed from: http://powo.science.kew.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:1174497-2
Mabey, Richard, 1988, The New Age Herbalist, US: Collier Books, p.45
Chevallier, Andrew, 2016, Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, 3rd Edition, US: DK Publishing, p.92
Cornell University website, Growing Guide: Coneflower, purple, accessed from: http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/homegardening/scene1d08.html
University of Maryland Medical Center website, Echinacea, accessed from: https://www.umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/echinacea
PubMed website, History of a Plant: The Example of Echinacea, accessed from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12808356
PubMed website, Chemical constituents from the aerial part of Echinacea purpurea, accessed from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24218964
Science Direct website, Volatile constituents and biological activities of the leaf and root of Echinacea species from South Africa, accessed from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1319016416301025
The Naturopathic Herbalist website, Echinacea spp., accessed from: https://thenaturopathicherbalist.com/2015/09/10/echinacea-spp/
Green, James, 2000, The Herbal Medicine Maker's Handbook, US: Crown Publishing Group, p. 31
PubMed website, Echinacea intake induces an immune response through altered expression of leucocyte hsp70, increased white cell counts and improved erythrocyte antioxidant defences, accessed from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15985050
About Sharon Falsetto:
Sharon Falsetto is a UK-certified aromatherapist. She has been living in the United States since 2006 and is the founder of Sedona Aromatherapie LLC and Sedona Aromatics: The Garden School.TM Sharon offers a home study aromatherapy education program: The Linguistics of AromaticsTM Program, approved by NAHA. Sharon is both a published author and editor in aromatherapy. She is also an aromatherapy consultant, a custom blend formulator, and a herbal studies student. She works from her garden studio in Sedona, Arizona, where she is in the final stages of creating her own aromatic stillroom and school room on her one acre homestead and aromatic gardens. Sharon is the author of Authentic Aromatherapy, the current chief editor of the NAHA Aromatherapy Journal, and the NAHA regional director for Arizona.
You can visit Sharon’s website at: www.sedonaaromatherapie.com.
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