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Echinacea
by Susan Wittig Albert
August 6, 2000

Among the indigenous medicines introduced by Native Americans, which is the most important? Which seems to have been used as a remedy for the most ailments? Which appeared as a patent medicine in the 1870's, touted as a remedy for snake bite? Which is among the safest and has great promise as an immune strengthener? And which has cone-shaped rose-colored or purple flowers, which may also be red or white or even yellow?

The single answer to all of these questions is echinacea. Until the 1920's, this herb was probably the most frequently-used American plant antibiotic, employed for everything from skin infections to diptheria, malaria, syphilis, gangrene-even rattlesnake bite (earning some echinacea products the rubric "snake oil"). But in 1909, the politically-powerful American Medical Association published a report saying that the benefits of echinacea didn't justify the claims made for it. By the 1940's, as other antibiotics were developed (particularly the sulfa drugs), echinacea disappeared from Americans' medicine cabinets. Europeans, however, continued their use of it. From their research (largely carried on in Germany), we now know a great deal about this potent plant and its effects on various conditions. There are now over 400 research articles published on echinacea, and scientists are beginning to unravel its chemical and pharmacological mysteries.

So far, these clinical reports indicate that the infection-fighting properties of echinacea's antibiotic (echinacoside) make it an effective treatment for flu and colds, respiratory tract infections, strep throat, bronchitis, and tonsillitis. Research supports its use in the treatment of wounds, burns, eczema, psoriasis, and herpes. It has also been used successfully to raise the white blood cell counts in patients who are undergoing radiation therapy, which also suggests its usefulness in bolstering the immune system and boosting T-cell production.

You can use echinacea as a decoction (a tea made from the dried root) or a tincture. To make a cup of decoction, bring 1 cup of water and 2 tsp of plant material to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes. Drink up to three times a day. If you prefer a tincture, take up to 1 tsp three times a day. As with any medicinal herb, consult a qualified professional for extended use. One book you might want to consult: The Healing Herbs, by Michael Castleman, which lists a number of research articles.

And if you don't want to grow echinacea for its healing properties, grow it for its beauty. There are several varieties, both mauve and white, and they're all simply stunning in the summer border. They're heat- and drought-tolerant too--a plus in anybody's garden!

© 2000 Susan Wittig Albert. All rights reserved.

Susan Wittig Albert is the author of the China Bayles Herbal Mysteries. The series features China Bayles, a former attorney who owns an herb shop. Each of the mysteries has an herbal theme and an herb-related title. The latest is Lavender Lies. You can find out more about Susan's books and read one of her free web mysteries at www.mysterypartners.com

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