Your Medicinal Herb Garden

One of the questions I get asked frequently is what herbs would I recommend for a small medicinal herb garden or for someone just starting out so they don’t get overwhelmed. So that’s what I’m going to cover today. Of course, I don’t know everyone’s specifics. I will have to make a few assumptions – there will be plenty of sun, access to water, and the soil is healthy. One other important point is that these are herbs I believe allow for a beginner herbalist to begin treating their family with, they are also good for more advanced herbalists (for instance, I use chamomile in many preparations because it’s good for so many things). I’m hoping this will enable more and more individuals to grow their own “farmacy”!

chamomile plantMatricaria recutita – Chamomile

Like I mentioned before, I believe Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)  to be one of the most important herbs in our home. I use it for upset stomach, trouble sleeping, calming skin irritations, colic, teething issues, anxiety, and more. It is one of those herbs that I could not do without. Once it is growing (seed germination can be difficult) it can thrive in almost any type soil as long as it is well-draining, high clay content or shallow hard pan soil would not work here. It does require full sun, so don’t try to hide this in a corner! It’s PH requirement is also quite flexible growing well in the soil as low as 5.6 up to 7.5. Sadly this is not a perennial plant which requires replanting each year. I left much of my flowers and allowed them to go to seed last fall hoping to see some new sprouts this year.

Uses: upset stomach, gripping pain, IBS, calming skin irritations and reducing infection, colic, teething, hair rinse, anxiety, sleep aid

Soil:  Well-drained

Sun: Full sun but will tolerate a little shade

Annual

Echinacea02Echinacea purpurea– Echinacea (Purple Coneflower)

I’ve always been fond of “Daisy” like flowers and Echinacea is no exception. Echinacea is not only beautiful to us but attractive to pollinators. So if you’re looking to attract more pollinators to your garden, this is an herb you want to consider. Being a perennial, as long as you are giving it space to grow it will grace your garden year after year. It does not do well with “wet feet” but, once established it will tolerate drought and heat due to its deep tap root. The best way to propagate is by root cuttings in Autumn.

For medicinal purposes, Echinacea flower can be used but will not be as strong as a preparation made from the root. If you are harvesting the flowers do it when the flowers are just starting to bloom, for the root harvest in the fall when all the energy has moved down (preferably after a frost or two). Don’t dig up the entire root, make sure to leave some to grow back in the spring. I left mine alone last year (besides clipping a few flowers) to allow it to propagate naturally.

In order for Echinacea to be helpful take it at the first sign of a cold, this is not a recommended herb to be used as a tonic. For internal use, I recommend three preparations: infusion or tincture (flowers) or decoction (root). Make sure to follow directions for preserving herbs if you want to use it over the winter./p>

Uses: Boost immunity

Soil:  Well-drained

Sun: Full sun but will tolerate a little shade

Water: water well until established, after that it will tolerate very dry

lemon balm flowersMelissa officinalis – Lemon Balm

First, a word of warning…lemon balm likes to grow and will expand in your garden if you do not keep it under control. This should not stop you from growing it, just understand you’ll need to cut it back and ‘tame’ it!

Lemon balm is my go to for two specific issues: anxiety and cold sores because of its anti-viral properties, but it is good for many other things as well: eczema, headache, insect bites, and wounds to name a few.  As a culinary herb, it adds a wonderfully fresh, lemony-mint taste to any dish, (it’s especially good in a fruit salad) and brews into a refreshing iced tea!

In my garden, it is one of the fastest growing plants I have. If I see it getting a little sad looking, I simply cut it down and it magically rejuvenates it – basically, It is another easy plant to grow and will grow prolifically if left alone! One way to control it is to clip it back several times in the summer and early fall to keep seeds from forming. Unlike mint, it does not grow underground “runners” so it makes it easy to pull any unwanted plants that might get away from you. On a side note, this makes amazing fodder for your chickens and goats. When our chickens got into my herb garden they decimated my lemon balm, of course, it grew back in a few weeks, but I was amazed at how much the chickens liked it. When I thin I just throw it over my fence and the chickens and goats fight for it!

Uses: Cold sores, anxiety, sleep aid, eczema, headaches, insect bites, wounds, colic, can help with ADHD

Soil:  moist, rich and Well drained

Sun: Full sun

Water: does not tolerate drought very well

These are three great starter herbs if you are wanting to step into growing your own medicinal herb garden.

I need to mention here that my assumption, again, is that you’ve done your research and have prepared your soil for planting. So many problems with plants can be avoided by feeding your soil and ensuring drainage is adequate and biological soil life is thriving!

Truthfully I have a really tough time narrowing it down to just 9 because so many plants are useful to have in your medicinal arsenal. However, one of the criteria I am looking for is ease of growing, which does slim down the list, and the ones I believe are most helpful for family medical care.

Last time I covered Lemon Balm, Chamomile, and Echinacea. This time I will cover calendula, Garlic, and Arnica. Three very different plants but all great for a home medical kit.

calendula-officinalisCalendula officinalis (Pot Marigold)

This sunny, happy, orange or yellow flowered plant is part of the Asteraceae family. Not to be mistaken for the marigold in the

Tagetes family. Sadly, it is an annual (I always prefer perennials), but with all its many benefits I still think it earns a place in every medicinal garden.

Propagate

Calendula does best when directly sown into the soil once the last chance of frost has passed. You can start them inside and transplant but there is more chance of harming the taproot. Make sure your soil allows for adequate drainage and oxygen, especially during the beginning stages, to avoid “damping off.”Calendula will tolerate a wide range of soils but prefers full sun.

A little tip

If you pick the mature flowers regularly in the spring and summer it may continue producing more flowers, even into the fall. Picking flowers also reduce the chance of pests (blister beetles, cucumber beetles, and aphids). Never let the flowers go to seed or you will greatly decrease your harvest.

Harvesting

The best time to pick is in the heat of the day when the water content is the lowest. Dry the flowers as soon as possible. The petals dry quickly but the receptacle does not so you can expect a total drying time of 10 days or more at 90 degrees or so. Let them cool and sort them carefully when they finish drying, as they reabsorb moisture readily.

Uses

Calendula is a wonderful anti-inflammatory for the skin and is used in many lotions, creams, and salves. Apply topically for skin irritation: dry skin cracked nipples, eczema, wounds.

Taken internally it will help the digestive system: colitis, peptic ulcers, gastritis (infusion) and is cleansing for the liver and gall bladder (tincture). It also helps reduce menstrual pain and regulate bleeding (infusion).

Preparations: tincture, infusion, salve, cream, compress

TYPE: Annual

SOIL: Well-drained, aerated soil

SUN: Prefers full sun, will tolerate partial shade

WATER: Water well 1-2 times a week

alluimAllium (garlic)

You can’t go wrong with garlic. It adds a wonderful, flavorful explosion to any fare and, if used correctly, can add nutritional benefits. Garlic is also a wonderful addition to your garden as a pest repellant.

Propagate

Garlic can be planted in the spring but you will likely deal with smaller bulbs when harvesting. I recommend planting in the fall, so put this on your list as something to do as you move into fall. You’ll want to plant garlic about a month before frost hits. Simply break apart the bulb a few days before planting but keep the husk on the individual cloves. Plant them with the pointy end up about 2” deep and 4” apart. Heavily cover with mulch. In the spring green shoots will begin emerging. As the threat of frost is gone, feel free to remove the mulch.

A little tip

Do NOT use garlic bought at the store, use garlic from a previous harvest or buy them from a local garden shop. Be aware that you need to pick a variety that is good for your zone. Garlic flowers are lovely but if you are looking for larger bulbs, clip back any flower shoots. Because garlic likes extra nitrogen fertilizing with rabbit manure or manure tea would give it that added boost. Water well about every 3-5 days during the drier season.

Harvesting

Harvest when you see the tops begin to yellow and get droopy (usually late summer in my area). Pull them from the soil gently, using a spade, brush off the dirt and hang in a shady spot with plenty of air flow. You can bunch them together but make sure every side gets air. It is ready to use when the wrappers are dry and papery. You can either “braid” them (yes, even hard neck garlic which is what grows best here) or clip off the tops and store in a dry, cool area.

Uses

Garlic is one of those things that mainstream medicine has recognized. There’s really no way you can go wrong adding garlic to your life on a daily basis.

• Reduce risk of certain cancers
• Positive effects on the cardiovascular system
• Lower cholesterol
• Antibacterial
• Antimicrobial
• Antiviral
• Antifungal

The key to achieving the highest health benefits from this powerhouse is to make sure you don’t cook it, yes, add it to dishes, but try to add it near the end of cooking, it will provide the most intense flavor and won’t destroy all the enzymes (allicin). Press the garlic through a garlic press and let it stand for 5-10 minutes, this activates the allicin. At this point, you can add it to your dish, blend it with some honey and spread it on toast, add it to a batch of elderberry syrup (already prepared) for an extra immune boost, or, get crazy and just eat it straight up. Warning – you will have garlic breath J

Preparations: capsules, food, infused oil, powder

TYPE: Annual

SOIL: Well-drained, aerated soil

SUN: Prefers full sun

WATER: Water well every 3-5 days during the hot, dry months

Warning

Because garlic is such a warming food, it can be aggravating to people with a warm constitution. In high doses, it may irritate the digestive system, causing gas, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and burning of the mouth. In normal and moderate doses garlic acts as a pre-biotic, food for the good microflora in the gut. People with a known allergy to Allium plants should avoid garlic.

arnica1Arnica

 

A daisy-like flower with a happy, sunny disposition also part of the Asteraceae family. This is a beautiful and helpful addition to any medicinal herb garden.

Propagate

If you are fortunate enough to know someone that has arnica in their garden, ask if you can have a cutting or if they are ready to divide their plant. If not, starting with seeds isn’t that difficult but germination can be tricky taking one month up to two years so patience will come into play here! Sprinkle the seeds and lightly cover with soil. Keep moist. The other option is to start them indoors with plenty of light (preferably a grow light) you can transplant these in the spring after the threat of frost is gone.

Uses

• anti-inflammatory
• analgesic (reduces pain)
• vulnerary (wound-healing: fractures, sprains, contusions, muscular pain, varicose veins)
• rubefacient (increases blood flow to an area helping speed healing)

Arnica should only be used topically on the unbroken skin. It is quite effective when used as a poultice, in a carrier oil or salve.

Harvesting

Harvest blooming flower heads in summer, June through August.

Preparations: poultice, salve, infused oil, wash ( Steep 2 teaspoons arnica in 1 cup boiling water, let cool and use)

TYPE: Perennial

SOIL: Prefers sandy, slightly alkaline

SUN: Prefers full sun, will tolerate shade in very hot areas

WATER: Not drought tolerant until established, keep the soil moist but not soaked – a good weekly watering should suffice except during very dry, hot months.

nettleI love nettles, the leaves are filled with a plethora of vitamins (high levels of Vitamin A, C, E & K), protein, chlorophyll, and minerals (calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium) making it quite useful as a vitamin drink. Juicing fresh nettle, preparing a nourishing herbal infusion, creating a “pesto”, or even using it as the spinach in a vegetable lasagna are all great ways to enjoy this herb while benefitting from its nutritive power.

I am fully aware that nettle is available to anyone who wildcrafts, so why do I recommend growing it in your herb garden? Because you know how it’s been grown and where it’s been grown. You have worked to create healthy soil and you aren’t spraying it with harmful chemicals. Furthermore, it’s growing right outside your door making it quick and easy to harvest, whether you are harvesting enough to make herbal preparations or even if you just want a little for your dinner preparations. To me, keeping things simple is key.

But what about the sting? Well, it’s a small price to pay, and honestly, if you harvest them correctly (wear gloves here) and either dry or saute/steam them, the sting is no longer a threat. Interestingly, nettle actually contains juices in its leaves that can stop the pain of a nettle “sting”. I was out yesterday looking at some nettle, I wasn’t wearing gloves and just decided to grab a leaf, roll it up, and eat it. I didn’t get stung, I decided to do an experiment and just brushed my hand against the nettles, sure enough, I was stung. I immediately grabbed another leaf, worked it between my fingers until the juices were released and rubbed it on the sting. The intensity of the pain greatly decreased, I wasn’t that bothered by it so I didn’t keep the leaf on for long. A few minutes later, the sting seemed to begin intensifying again so I grabbed a plantain leaf, crushed it and applied it with total relief in a short time. The moral of the story here is grab it like you own it – nettles sense fear J

Nettle prefers rich, moist soil and full sun but will grow in shadier areas, the difference being that the plant in shade will produce less seed which can be harvested and used as well. Seeds are great for overwrought adrenals. The seed can be a little stimulating, if you dry it first this will decrease the effect.

As a nourishing herbal infusion, it can help with fatigue, building and purify the blood, and detoxify (it has a diuretic property). This is also a wonderful herb to include in your diet and herb regimen if you are prone to allergies.

Preparations: Infusion, Nourishing Herbal Infusion, Poultice, Tincture, Juiced, Food

Growing

TYPE: Perennial
SOIL: Moist, rich
SUN: Prefers full sun will grow in shade
WATER: water well until established
Propagation: Cuttings, Root transplant, seed

lavender farmers marketLavender (Lavendula)

Lavender is a beautiful, highly aromatic plant that is not too difficult to grow in the right conditions. It is one of those herbs that almost everyone recognizes by sight and smell. Who hasn’t enjoyed the scent of lavender in soap, lotion, or even in a room or body spray? Lavender is an antimicrobial which makes it a great choice for a room deodorizer with germ-killing capabilities. It is a calming herb that can easily be added to infusions and baths to help reduce stress and irritability and induce sleep. It also has wonderful anti-inflammatory properties making it a perfect herb when treating burns and bug bites. The essential oil has been used for many years to treat burns, eczema, reduce scar tissue and aid in healing infections (including fungal).

I don’t think you can have enough lavender growing so I choose a sunny spot that has soil that is well-drained. It doesn’t like to have “wet feet” so it really doesn’t require that much input. Watering once a week is generally sufficient during the driest months. Don’t put it in with something that prefers moist soil, it will not thrive and may not even survive.

Harvest the flowers when they are dry and make sure to dry them immediately to reduce the loss of the essential oils. The leaves can also be used but are not nearly as high in medicinal properties as the flowers.

Preparations: Get creative when deciding how to use this herb: floral bath, steam inhalation, infusion, oil, pillow, sachet for drawers, tincture, poultice, salves, lotions, & hydrosol (maybe you have a friend or know someone who makes essential oils like I do which gives me a great supply for hydrosols)!

Growing

Type: Perennial
Soil: Rich, drier
Sun: Full Sun
Water: Water well once a week or so, let soil dry between waterings
Propagation: Seed, Cuttings, Layering

comfrey-true-deep-purple-flowers 002-400Comfrey (Symphytum spp.)

Many people cringe when I recommend growing comfrey. They see it as an invasive plant that will eventually choke out the rest of the herbs in their garden. Though this can be true, with a little management you can keep this from happening while benefiting from the diverse offerings of this plant!

First, I want to mention the few obvious things that are not medicine related: comfrey leaves are wonderful mulch makers and, because of their large leaf growth, will shade out competitors like any unwanted weeds that may pop up in your garden. Because they are deep-rooted they pull up the minerals found in the soil and bring it up to the leaf. Chopping and dropping these mineral-rich leaves puts those minerals back into the soil and adds organic matter (thus aeration) to your soil profile. Additionally, bees and other pollinators love the flower and if you grow a blocking variety you won’t deal with it reseeding itself.

As far as medicinal use, there is virtually no competing herb that can heal skin the way comfrey can. As a matter of fact, it can heal so well and quickly that you need to make sure the wound is fully cleansed and there is no sign of infection, it could get closed up inside. Comfrey is also well-known for its ability to treat sprains, swelling, bruises and historically even mend broken bones! It can also help alleviate osteoarthritis and other arthritic type pain.  Comfrey contains allantoin which stimulates tissue repair and cell proliferation. Which means it is also great in salves to use on areas that are troubled by irritation or rash.

Comfrey is a pretty flexible plant and can grow almost anywhere. However, it does prefer moist, rich, loamy soil and dappled sunlight. We have found that once it is established it grows really well, even in imperfect conditions. If you are wanting to control the spread I would suggest two things: do not disturb the roots. Every small root piece will grow into another plant. Make sure you are going to keep it where you plant it and don’t till the soil. Second, reduce its growth by chopping the leaves at least twice in a growing season, and dead head any flowers that appear. If it is growing in an area that you don’t want it, the best way to get rid of it is to keep its leaves so low that it loses all ability to continue growing. Do not go pulling the roots because you will likely not be able to get the entire root system out.

Preparations: Poultice, salve, infused oil, infusion

Growing

Type: Perennial
Soil: Moist, Rich, loamy
Sun: dappled sunlight
Water: occasionally, once it’s established it can tolerate drought much better because if its deep roots.

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Echinacea Benefits to Support Your Health

Echinacea is a powerful and beneficial herb used by people around the world to maintain good health. Every part of the plant, from the roots to the flower petals, is bursting with vital nutrients. With a reputation as a natural cold remedy, many people enjoy echinacea in one form or another, whether as a tea, a supplement, or even the raw plant. Here, we’ll look at ten impressive ways echinacea can support your health.

What Is Echinacea?

A flowering plant native to North America, echinacea has dotted the American landscape in one form or another for hundreds of years. Initially prized by the Native American Sioux Indians as a remedy for snakebites, colic, and infections, it went on to become a wellness staple until the advent of antibiotics. Today, echinacea remains one of America’s most beloved and widely used herbs. Natural cold remedies, cough drops, and organic supplements all cite echinacea as a key ingredient.

Like other herbs, the health benefits of echinacea are owed to its diverse makeup of nutrients, which includes polysaccharides, alkylamides, flavonoids, polyphenols, vitamin C, selenium, and zinc.

10 Health Benefits of Echinacea

Americans spend millions of dollars on echinacea supplements every year to support their health. With a long history of therapeutic use, there is a treasure trove of research to support its popularity.

1. Boosts the Immune System

Echinacea can have a powerful impact on the immune system; over 14 clinical trials have confirmed its ability to encourage good health all year long. Other studies show echinacea to be among the most effective supplements for seasonal wellness.

2. Reduces Redness and Swelling

Systemic swelling, redness, and discomfort in the body can have multiple sources, including an unhealthy diet or strenuous exercise. Consuming echinacea or applying skin care products that contain echinacea essential oil can help reduce and alleviate tissue irritation.

3. Promotes the Health of Cells

Consuming echinacea promotes the health of protective cells in your body. Many of the compounds in echinacea support immune cells and encourage healthy cell growth.

4. Facilitates Oxygen Transport

Echinacea may improve oxygen levels in the blood. Echinacea increases erythropoietin production in the bone marrow, this, in turn, promotes red blood cell production and increases the capacity of the blood to transport oxygen.

5. Supports Oral Health

Echinacea has been evaluated in combination with other herbs like sage and lavender and found to reduce bad breath. It’s believed this effect is partly due to echinacea’s ability to neutralized the harmful organisms that cause bad breath.

6. Alleviates Physical Discomfort

Native Americans used echinacea to reduce aches and pains. Today, research has shown its potential for promoting comfort following surgery.

7. Encourages Normal Skin Health

Echinacea supports a normal complexion by helping to discourage blemishes and irritation. Other studies found that it helps hydrate the skin and reduce the appearance of wrinkles.

8. Promotes Upper Respiratory Health

Echinacea is among the best herbs for supporting upper respiratory health, even in children. One double-blind placebo-controlled study found that air travel passengers who took echinacea tablets before and during a flight experienced fewer respiratory issues.

9. Provides Antioxidants

Echinacea is a source of antioxidants like vitamin C, beta-carotene, flavonoids, selenium, and zinc. One study found that a particular echinacea tincture had more antioxidant activity than Gingko Biloba.

10. Supports Normal Aging

Although human research is necessary for confirmation, the results of animal studies suggest that echinacea could offer anti-aging potential. In one study, supplemental echinacea was attributed to helping extend the lifespan of aging mice.

Using Echinacea

Echinacea supplements are available in many forms. If you have access to the plant itself, you can make a pure, organic tea which doubles as an incredible home remedy for the flu.

Echinacea Tea

Below is an easy recipe for echinacea tea. Make sure only to use organic or wildcrafted echinacea that’s free of pesticides. For flavor, you can add natural sweeteners like honey, but I prefer it plain.

  1. Heat 8-16 ounces of distilled or filtered water over medium to high heat.
  2. Add a mixture of flowers, roots, and leaves.
  3. Cover with a lid, reduce the heat, and simmer for about 15 minutes.
  4. Strain and enjoy hot or cold!

Side Effects and Precautions

Echinacea is generally considered safe, however, people who are sensitive to pollen should exercise caution. Echinacea comes from the same family of plants as daisies, marigolds, and ragweed. Some common side effects include dizziness, dry mouth, and mild nausea. While it is a favorite herb taken by many women, more research is needed to determine its safety for expectant or breastfeeding mothers. Before you try echinacea yourself, consult with your trusted healthcare provider.

Echinacea: Health Benefits, Uses, Research

Echinacea is a very popular herb and people commonly take it to help combat flu and colds. It is a genus of herbaceous flowering plants in the daisy family – Asteraceae. It is also known as the American coneflower.

Echinacea was commonly used by Native Americans for hundreds of years before the arrival of European explorers, settlers, and colonizers. It is endemic to eastern and central North America and thrives in moist to dry prairies and open woodlands.

By the early 1800s Echinacea became a popular herbal remedy among those who had settled in the USA, and soon became commonly used in Europe as well. It became much more popular after research was carried out on it in Germany in the 1920s.

Echinacea is available OTC (over the counter) at pharmacies, health shops and supermarkets as teas, liquid extracts, a dried herb, and as capsules or tablets.

Promoters of Echinacea say that the herb encourages the immune system and reduces many of the symptoms of colds, flu and some other illnesses, infections, and conditions.

Echinacea is a perennial plant, it lasts for many years. It is approximately from 1 to 2 feet (30 to 60 centimeters) tall when mature. It is slightly spiky and has large purple to pink flowers, depending on the species. The center of the flower has a seed head (cone), which is also spiky and dark brown to red in color.

tradmed_bp_november_embed_echinacea101_01-web_crop
Echinacea purpurea.

Three species of Echinacea are used as herbal remedies:

  • Echinacea Angustifolia – Narrow-leaf Coneflower
  • Echinacea pallida – Pale Purple Coneflower
  • Echinacea purpurea – Purple Coneflower, Eastern Purple Coneflower

Active substances in Echinacea

Echinacea has a complex mix of active substances, some of which are said to be antimicrobial, while others are believed to possibly have an effect on the human immune system.

All species of this herbal remedy have compounds called phenols. Many plants contain phenols, active substances which control the activity of a range of enzymes and cell receptors and protect the plant from infections and UV radiation damage. Phenols have high antioxidant properties, which are good for human health.

Echinacea also contains alkylamides or alkamides, (not in E. pallida), which have an effect on the immune system.

Echinacea also contains polysaccharides, glycoproteins, and caffeic acid derivatives.

How effective is Echinacea?

Several health claims and accusations of no health benefits have been made about Echinacea. The lay reader, as well as many health care professionals generally do not know how many studies there have been, which were scientifically carried out, and which claims are worth considering.

A number of studies were carried out in the mid-1990s, including randomized trials. However, they were nearly all sponsored by Echinacea manufacturers and marketers and were not considered by the scientific community as being of good quality. Most of them reported on the benefits of the herbal remedy.

Does Echinacea have any effect on catching colds or reducing symptoms of a cold?

Studies have produced conflicting results:

  • Yes – scientists from the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy reviewed over a dozen studies on the effects of Echinacea on people’s risk of catching a cold.

    They concluded that Echinacea can reduce a person’s chances of catching a cold by approximately 58%.

    They also found that the popular herbal remedy reduces the length of time a cold lasts by 1.4 days. They published their findings in The Lancet Infections Diseases (July 2007 edition).

Echinacea history

Echinacea Angustifolia was used extensively by the North American Plains Indians for general medical purposes.

In the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, Echinacea was used for treating infection with anthrax, snakebites and also as a pain reliever.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Echinacea became extremely popular in Europe and North America as a herbal medication.

Echinacea was first used as a treatment for the common cold when a Swiss supplement maker mistakenly understood that it could prevent colds, and was used for such purposes by Native American tribes in South Dakota.

Echinacea was not commonly used for the treatment or prevention of colds by Native American Indians. Some, like the Kiowa and the Cheyenne, used it for sore throats and coughs, while the Pawnee said it was effective for headaches. The Lakotah said it was an excellent painkiller.

Native Americans say that humans learned to use Echinacea by watching elk seeking out the herb and eating them whenever they were wounded or sick. They named it the “elk root”.

Uses of Echinacea

Echinacea is widely used all over the world today for a wide range of illnesses, infections, and conditions. Below is a list – apart from some studies quoted earlier on in this article, most of the benefits claimed have been anecdotal.

Echinacea is used by people today for:

Echinacea supplements and bottle
Studies have produced results as to the benefits of echinacea.
  • Acid indigestion
  • Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Diphtheria
  • Dizziness
  • Genital herpes
  • Gum disease
  • Malaria
  • Migraines
  • Pain
  • Rattlesnake bites
  • Rheumatism
  • Septicemia – Bloodstream infections
  • Streptococcus infections
  • Syphilis
  • The flu
  • Tonsillitis
  • Typhoid
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Vaginal yeast infections

Echinacea quality control

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) warns consumers about being careful regarding some Echinacea products which are on the market.

Echinacea products are commonly mislabeled; some have been tested and were found to have no Echinacea in them at all. The term “standardized” may sound impressive, but has no real meaning, the NIH emphasized.

Laboratory tests have shown that some Echinacea products are tainted with arsenic, lead or selenium.

Herbal remedies are not regulated in most countries, including the USA and UK, in the same way, medications are. This can mean that a remedy – and Echinacea is a herbal remedy – which is bought at a drugstore might not contain what the label claims.

“Natural” does not mean “harmless”

Marketers of natural products tend to promote how harmless natural products are in comparison to man-made ones. It is important to remember that all natural means is that it exists in (or is derived from) nature, “natural” does not mean that it is harmless.

The following are all “natural” plants that can cause harm:

  • Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) – one of the most toxic plants in the Western hemisphere. Also known as belladonna, devil’s cherry, and dwale.
  • Apple seeds – they contain small quantities of amygdalin, a cyanogenic glycoside. If you swallowed all the pips from one apple, there would not be enough poison to harm you. However, if you kept eating mouthfuls, you would eventually reach a fatal dose
  • Rhubarb – the stalks are edible, but the leaves contain oxalic acid, which can cause serious kidney disorders, convulsions, and even coma
  • Daffodil (Narcissus) – the bulbs are toxic and can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. If enough is consumed it can be fatal. The stems are also toxic and can cause blurred vision, vomiting, and headaches
  • Cicuta – also known as water hemlock, cowbane or poison parsnip. A highly poisonous plant that can kill humans if consumed. It has high levels of cicutoxin, a powerful toxin.

The Immune System: Anatomy & Physiology

The immune system serves as the body’s greatest defense mechanism against foreign invaders. But as herbalists, we see it as much more than just a systematic fortress.  Medical herbalist Diana Jones writes, “Immunity represents an ecological interface between inner and outer environments”–a concept that considers immune health holistically, linking it to our relationship with mind, body, spirit and ultimately our largest bodily ecosystem—nature. Our “Herbalism, Anatomy & Physiology” series continues with an overview of how this complex system works, as well as some herbal tools to keep your immune system healthy.

Technically speaking, there are two forms of immunity: innate immunity (non-specific) and adaptive immunity (acquired).  The innate immune system functions with what we were born with, our genetic predispositions of self-protection. It’s the first line of defense, including our skin, the tissue lining of our respiratory and digestive systems, our mucous, chemicals in the blood and immune system cells. When it senses the chemical properties of an antigen, a.k.a. our foreign invader, the innate immune system kicks into gear. Adaptive immunity, on the other hand, functions differently and serves as the inspiration behind modern-day vaccines. This form of immunity actually holds memories of antigens it has fought before, so it generates a more efficient response when encountering future attacks. While these two forms of immunity are considered the foundations of our immune response, there are other key players and body systems.

The Immune Alliance

Lymphatic System
While it’s natural to think of the immune system as a stand-alone entity, our lymphatic system also plays an important role in keeping us well. Perhaps this is why so many ancient medicine practices, like Ayurveda, emphasize lymphatic support through the use of herbs and massage for self-care. This commonly forgotten network system touches almost every part of our body system. It’s comprised of key organs and lymph nodes and transports lymph fluid, carrying critical immune cells throughout the body, as well as digested fats, fat soluble vitamins, and more. To support your lymphatic health, try dry brushing regularly or consider using alterative herbs like cleavers and burdock.

White Blood Cells
Created in the bone marrow and stored in the blood and lymphatic system, these cells are essential for supporting immunity and fighting infections. Unlike other cells, white blood cells do not have nuclei. Since these cells only live for one to three days, your body is constantly reproducing them and helping to regenerate itself regularly.

Spleen
Considered the largest organ in the lymphatic system, the spleen mostly acts as a blood filter and a storage system. It also helps to slow blood down and give the immune system time to create antibodies to fight antigens. While you can live without one, it would certainly create a higher risk for infections.

Bone Marrow
This spongy tissue resides inside your bones and produces blood cells, including platelets which help with clotting and white blood cells which fight infection.

Thymus
This organ is part of the lymphatic system which produces T cells, or lymphocytes, which help the adaptive immune system respond to antigens.

Support Immune Health

The beauty of herbal formulation is that it can be uniquely tailored to each person’s needs. A herbalist may not only use immune herbs for seasonal support, but alteratives to support the lymphatic system, diaphoretics to support a healthy sweat, nervines to reduce stress, or whatever herbal allies are calling to the herbal practitioner and client. By supporting the body as a whole, we believe we have a better chance of being and staying well. Below are some herbs that are used traditionally when thinking about immune support.

Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea Angustifolia): Once you taste echinacea’s powerful root, you’ll be surprised by the tingling sensation that soon follows. One of the plant’s distinguishing characteristics is the presence of alkylamines, which help to stimulate the immune system and provide a powerful boost.

Elderberry (Sambucus nigra): Traditionally both the flowers and berries of the black elderberry tree are used to support the immune system in the depths of winter.* European apothecaries often have the dark purple syrup handy to aid in seasonal wellness.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris): Because this kitchen herb is rich in the volatile oil thymol, it’s commonly used in cough drops, mouthwash, and ointments. A soothing plant ally for winter.

Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra): It’s not just for pacifying a sweet tooth; this root also aids the respiratory system in times of need. Whether you’ve sung yourself hoarse or your throat is trying to tell you something.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale): While you may know this rhizome for its digestive supporting properties, it’s also known for seasonal support in traditional herbalism. If you drink enough ginger in your tea, it will act as a warming agent, helping the body “sweat it out.”

Adaptogens: A classification for herbs that provide deep immune and whole body support, and they also help the body adapt to stress. Many of these herbs are immunomodulators, like astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), codonopsis (Codonopsis pilosula), and schisandra (Schisandra chinensis).

Our herbalists see immunity as the web, intricately woven between other key body systems and gut health. Many practitioners have witnessed the undeniable correlation between strong immune systems and a healthy outlook on life. While we believe the immune system to be more complex and powerful than one can even fathom, we are certain that happiness, living in communion with nature, having healthy relationships, and embracing plant medicine certainly can help.

Echinacea 101

If you taste echinacea’s powerful root, you’ll be surprised by the tingling sensation that soon follows. While many herbalists enjoy echinacea’s root, the entire plant can be used for its immune boosting properties.* The alkyamides in echinacea help stimulate the immune system, but this is only one set of constituents that work in harmony with many others in the plant. Perhaps this is why it is one of the most studied plants in Western herbalism. The true identity of all the active principles still remains open, making echinacea’s true powers another plant mystery!

All the plants in the echinacea genus are indigenous to North America and originally dwelled in prairie lands. In the mid-1800s, the American Eclectic physicians began to use echinacea and its healing powers reached beyond the New World.  By the beginning of the 20th century, it was one of the most frequently used herbal preparations in the United States, and overharvesting of the wild perennial flower soon followed.

Fortunately, United Plant Savers works to restore native populations of plants, and echinacea can now be cultivated in many different regions of the world. The best way to start your echinacea seeds is to have them endure a period of cold, moist stratification. What’s that, you ask? Some seeds are very hardy and lay dormant until awakened by the cold weather. Stratification either stimulates or creates winter conditions to encourage germination or sprouting. In the wild, echinacea’s dormancy is naturally overcome by spending time in the ground and enduring long winters.

The easiest way to start echinacea at home is to sow echinacea seeds about ¼ inch deep in fall, cover with a thin layer of rich compost and let nature take its course over the winter. Another option is to place the seeds in a small jar with some sawdust, vermiculite or peat moss. Then moisten and place the jar in the refrigerator for about a month. Once spring arrives, the seeds can be planted a ¼ inch deep into a large pot or directly into the soil. These purple coneflowers enjoy partial to full sun, ample water (but can handle some drought) and good drainage. You can expect the perennial to bloom fully by the summer of its second year.

tradmed_bp_november_embed_echinacea101_04-webThe leaves of Echinacea purpurea sometimes have “covering trichomes,” which are hairs, emerging right from the skin (or epidermis) of the leaf. Our microscopist helps to identify plants and saves photos like the above to deepen our knowledge of key plant identification features.

If you think you have found this plant in the wild, you will be able to identify it by some of its most pronounced features. All members of the Echinacea genus are perennials that bloom with both disk and ray flowers. The purple ray flowers attach to a round, high and spiky cone – hence the common name “purple coneflower.” Technically speaking, this thick and spiky cone is actually hundreds of more flowers, all tightly packed together.

So when you’re feeling like you need a plant ally to give you a boost, think of echinacea.

Now when you see a beautiful echinacea flower while you are out and about, its radiant purple flowers and sturdy structure will remind you of just how powerful this plant really is.

echinacea02Cold Stratification of Seeds for Growing Echinacea Purpurea

Attract goldfinches and butterflies to your garden with a healthy stand of Echinacea purpurea, or purple coneflower. The plant is a native perennial that thrives in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 9. Purple coneflower grows from 2 to 4 feet tall, depending on variety, producing purple petals around a cone-shaped center in late summer that first draws butterflies, then finches as it becomes a bristly seed head. Once established, the plant is easy to care and readily self-seeds in place. When starting purple coneflower from seed indoors, you’ll get the best germination rates if seeds are cold stratified.

Cold Stratification

Cold stratification is a seed treatment developed to help gardeners mimic the winter conditions many seeds need to break dormancy and germinate. Many plants, both perennial and annual, that grow in a cold-winter climate evolved winter seed dormancy to keep them from sprouting when conditions are too cold or dry for sprouts to survive outdoors. Some seeds need only dry stratification — exposure only to temperatures between 33 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit — to germinate, while others need moisture in addition to the cold treatment. The length of stratification required also varies by plant species.

Purple Coneflower Stratification

Purple coneflower seed germinates best with moist stratification. Mixing the seeds with a small amount of sawdust, vermiculite or peat moss inside a plastic zipper bag or small jar for cold stratification keeps the seeds moist without hindering germination later. Seeds are sown one-quarter inch deep in containers of moist potting soil and covered with plastic to retain moisture. These containers go inside a refrigerator or other area where the temperature is consistently between 33 and 60 F for the entire stratification period. The temperature experts specifically recommend for E. purpurea coneflowers varies from 40 through 59 F, with the majority at the lower end of the range. Gardeners in areas with winter temperatures consistently in this range can place trays outdoors. Packaged seed often is pre-stratified and does not require any chilling to germinate.

Timing Stratification

The time required for stratification to be effective varies as well, from as little as two weeks up to a month for the seed to break dormancy. Planning for four weeks of cold prevents any question, as chilling for too long is not harmful to the seeds. Stratification time should be figured into your propagation time so that seeds are removed from chilling when it is time to sow. Seeds germinate in 10 to 30 days at 65 to 70 F and are often ready for transplanting within 30 days. The higher the temperature for both the seed and the seedling, the faster the germination and early growth. Purple coneflowers prefer slightly cool temperatures as seedlings and can be planted out just after the last predicted frost. Stems may be stronger and develop more flower buds when they experience cool temperatures of about 40 F after planting out.

Growing Purple Coneflower

Purple coneflowers grow in full sun to partial shade — dappled shade is ideal — in pH neutral, well-drained soil. Plants started from seed may not bloom for two years after planting. Transplants need at least 15 inches between them for the air circulation necessary to avoid disease, but no more than 24 inches to avoid spindly growth that requires staking. They are drought tolerant once established, but low to moderate water throughout the summer results in the prettiest plants. Like most natives, coneflowers have low fertilizer requirements, although a slow-release, high nitrogen fertilizer, like a 12-6-6, is beneficial in early spring as new growth begins. Deadheading keeps the plant blooming and compact and prevents self-seeding. Basal foliage is evergreen in zone 9 but can be cut back in early spring if it needs to be refreshed.

‘Elk Root’

Echinacea angustifolia was used extensively by the North American Plains Indians for general medical purposes.

In the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, Echinacea was used for treating infection with anthrax, snakebites and also as a pain reliever.

In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s Echinacea became extremely popular in Europe and North America as a herbal medication.

Echinacea was first used as a treatment for the common cold when a Swiss supplement maker mistakenly understood that it could prevent colds, and was used for such purposes by Native American tribes in South Dakota.

Echinacea was not commonly used for the treatment or prevention of colds by Native American Indians. Some, like the Kiowa and the Cheyenne, used it for sore throats and coughs, while the Pawnee said it was effective for headaches. The Lakota said it was an excellent painkiller.

Native Americans say that humans learned to use Echinacea by watching elk seeking out the herb and eating them whenever they were wounded or sick. They named it the “elk root”.

From the medical community.

Echinacea: Health Benefits, Uses, Research

Echinacea is a very popular herb and people commonly take it to help combat flu and colds. It is a genus of herbaceous flowering plants in the daisy family – Asteraceae. It is also known as the American coneflower.

Echinacea was commonly used by Native Americans for hundreds of years before the arrival of European explorers, settlers and colonizers. It is endemic to eastern and central North America and thrives in moist to dry prairies and open woodlands.

By the early 1800s Echinacea became a popular herbal remedy among those who had settled in the USA, and soon became commonly used in Europe as well. It became much more popular after research was carried out on it in Germany in the 1920s.

Echinacea is available OTC (over the counter) at pharmacies, health shops and supermarkets as teas, liquid extracts, a dried herb, and as capsules or tablets.

Promoters of Echinacea say that the herb encourages the immune system and reduces many of the symptoms of colds, flu and some other illnesses, infections and conditions.

Echinacea is a perennial plant, it lasts for many years. It is approximately from 1 to 2 feet (30 to 60 centimeters) tall when mature. It is slightly spiky and has large purple to pink flowers, depending on the species. The center of the flower has a seed head (cone), which is also spiky and dark brown to red in color.

Echinacea Purpurea
Echinacea purpurea.

Three species of Echinacea are used as herbal remedies:

  • Echinacea angustifolia – Narrow-leaf Coneflower
  • Echinacea pallida – Pale Purple Coneflower
  • Echinacea purpurea – Purple Coneflower, Eastern Purple Coneflower

Active substances in Echinacea

Echinacea has a complex mix of active substances, some of which are said to be antimicrobial, while others are believed to possibly have an effect on the human immune system.

All species of this herbal remedy have compounds called phenols. Many plants contain phenols, active substances which control the activity of a range of enzymes and cell receptors, and protect the plant from infections and UV radiation damage. Phenols have high antioxidant properties, which are good for human health.

Echinacea also contains alkylamides or alkamides, (not in E. pallida), which have an effect on the immune system.

Echinacea also contains polysaccharides, glycoproteins, and caffeic acid derivatives.

How effective is Echinacea?

Several health claims and accusations of no health benefits have been made about Echinacea. The lay reader, as well as many health care professionals generally do not know how many studies there have been, which were scientifically carried out, and which claims are worth considering.

A number of studies were carried out in the mid 1990s, including randomized trials. However, they were nearly all sponsored by Echinacea manufacturers and marketers and were not considered by the scientific community as being of good quality. Most of them reported on the benefits of the herbal remedy.

Does Echinacea have any effect on catching colds or reducing symptoms of a cold?

Studies have produced conflicting results:

Uses of Echinacea

Echinacea is widely used all over the world today for a wide range of illnesses, infections and conditions. Below is a list –apart from some studies quoted earlier on in this article, most of the benefits claimed have been anecdotal; this means that in the majority of cases, the benefits have not been proven scientifically to be effective or ineffective.

Echinacea is used by people today for:

Echinacea supplements and bottle
Studies have produced conflicting results as to the benefits of echinacea.
  • Acid indigestion
  • Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Diphtheria
  • Dizziness
  • Genital herpes
  • Gum disease
  • Malaria
  • Migraines
  • Pain
  • Rattlesnake bites
  • Rheumatism
  • Septicemia – Bloodstream infections
  • Streptococcus infections
  • Syphilis
  • The flu
  • Tonsillitis
  • Typhoid
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Vaginal yeast infections

Echinacea quality control

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) warns consumers about being careful regarding some Echinacea products which are on the market.

Echinacea products are commonly mislabeled; some have been tested and were found to have no Echinacea in them at all. The term “standardized” may sound impressive, but has no real meaning, the NIH emphasized.

Laboratory tests have shown that some Echinacea products are tainted with arsenic, lead or selenium.

Herbal remedies are not regulated in most countries, including the USA and UK, in the same way medications are. This can mean that a remedy – and Echinacea is a herbal remedy – which is bought at a drugstore might not contain what the label claims.

“Natural” does not mean “harmless”

Marketers of natural products tend to promote how harmless natural products are in comparison to man-made ones. It is important to remember that all natural means is that it exists in (or is derived from) nature, “natural” does not mean that it is harmless.

The following are all “natural” plants that can cause harm:

  • Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladona) – one of the most toxic plants in the Western hemisphere. Also known as belladonna, devil’s cherry and dwale.
  • Apple seeds – they contain small quantities of amygdalin, a cyanogenic glycoside. If you swallowed all the pips from one apple, there would not be enough poison to harm you. However, if you kept eating mouthfuls, you would eventually reach a fatal dose
  • Rhubarb – the stalks are edible, but the leaves contain oxalic acid, which can cause serious kidney disorders, convulsions and even coma
  • Daffodil (Narcissus) – the bulbs are toxic and can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. If enough is consumed it can be fatal. The stems are also toxic and can cause blurred vision, vomiting and headaches
  • Cicuta – also known as water hemlock, cowbane or poison parsnip. A highly poisonous plant that can kill humans if consumed. It has high levels of cicutoxin, a powerful toxin.

Let’s Create Some Herbal Remedies – When Cold and Flu Season Arrives.

These two recipes are prepared as teas but are not taken in your tea cup – they help with the discomfort of flu season in other ways.

Winter Inhalation

living-herbs-for-cold-flu-thymeThis traditional herbal steam helps open your sinuses, discourages bacterial and viral growth, and reduces pain and inflammation. Remember to stay a comfortable distance from the steaming pot to avoid burning your face.

8 – 12 teaspoons fresh or 4 teaspoons dried eucalyptus leaf {Eucalyptus globulus}

2 – 3 tablespoons fresh or 1 tablespoon dried peppermint leaf

2 – 3 tablespoons fresh or 1 tablespoon dried thyme herb

3 cups purified water

Essential oils of the herbs above {optional}

Place the eucalyptus, peppermint, thyme, and water in a saucepan and stir to thoroughly combine. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, covered, for 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and uncover. Drape a large towel over your head and the saucepan, forming a steam-filled tent, and inhale the medicated steam deeply for 5 minutes or so. Repeat several times daily as needed, warming the decoction each time just to the boiling point.

You can enhance the inhalation by adding 6 or 7 drops of essential oil to the brew after you remove it from the heat. Try oils of eucalyptus, peppermint, and thyme, and add one or more as desired. {Because essential oils can cause dizziness and light-headedness, do not use enhanced inhalations more than two or three times a day, and discontinue use if redness of the mucous membrane develops.}

A Soothing Throat Gargle

herbs for cold and fluThis decoction soothes throats that are sore from illness or hoarse from overuse; it’s ideal for public speakers or teachers even when it isn’t winter. You will notice that this recipe calls for simmering above-ground portions of the plant that are usually steeped; this is because you will be extracting deeper compounds that are only somewhat water-soluble.

5 -7 tablespoons fresh or 2 1/2 tablespoons dried echinacea leaf

4 – 6 tablespoons fresh or 2 tablespoons dried lemon balm herb

3 – 5 tablespoons fresh or 1 1/2 tablespoons dried sage leaf

3 – 5 tablespoons fresh or 1 1/2 tablespoons dried licorice root

2 tablespoons dried witch hazel bark {Hamamelis virginiana} or marshmallow root

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh or dried usnea lichen, if available {Usnea spp.}

5 cups purified water

Place the echinacea, lemon balm, sage, licorice, witch hazel or marshmallow, and optional usnea in a saucepan. Pour the water over the herbs and stir to thoroughly combine. Cover the pan, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and steep for 10 minutes, covered. Strain and compost the herbs. You can make a larger batch and store it in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Gargle with 1/4 cup of the warm or room-temperature tea four or five times a day; swallowing the liquid after gargling will provide extra benefits. For portability, put some in a little dropper bottle, and gargle with 3 or 4 droppersful for 30 seconds as a quick fix for an irritated throat.