Monday, 4 April 2011
Herb of the Week - Echinacea
There are nine known species of echinacea, all of which are native to the United States and southern Canada. The most commonly used, Echinacea purpurea, is believed to be the most potent.
Common Names—echinacea, purple coneflower, coneflower, American coneflower
Latin Names—Echinacea purpurea, Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea pallida
This perennial flowering plant is 1.2 m tall and 0.5 m wide at maturity. Depending on the climate, it begins to bloom in late May or early July. Its individual flowers (florets) within the flower head are hermaphroditic, having both male and female organs on each flower. It is pollinated by butterflies and bees. Its habitats include dry open woods, prairies and barrens, as well as cultivated beds. Although the plant prefers loamy or sandy, well-drained soils, it is little affected by the soil's pH. Unable to grow in the shade, E. purpurea thrives in either dry or moist soil and can tolerate drought, once established.
Slugs like to eat it.
How to Grow Echinacea
Coneflowers enjoy a sunny location with fertile soil. If your soil isn't particularly fertile, work in a little compost and supplement with a good organic fertilizer. Well-drained soil is a must. In moist areas, you might need to plant in a raised bed. New plants and seedlings will need to be watered until they are established. Once they are growing well, they will thrive on the available moisture from rain except in extremely dry areas.
Echinacea plants are available in most nurseries and garden centers, but they tend to be overpriced. Luckily, they are easy to grow from seeds. Plant echinacea seeds in early spring, as soon as the soil can be worked, and when you still expect another frost or two. Sow the seeds 1/4" deep and 2" apart. When the seedlings are an inch tall, thin to 18" apart. Rabbits and hedgehogs think new echinacea shoots are a tasty treat, so protect your seedlings if these animals are known to visit your garden.
Alternatively, you can plant your seeds about 2 months before your first fall frost. This gives the plants enough time to become established, and although they won't come to bloom the first year when you plant them this late, they will give you a much better bloom period next year.
Regular weeding is a must because echinacea doesn't compete well with weeds, but other that that, plants require very little care. Expect blooms from June to October in most areas. Echinacea will be one of the last plants in your garden to go dormant.
Echinacea plants are good about self sowing as long as you leave a few of the last flowers to dry up naturally. When weeding the garden in spring, watch for tiny coneflower seedlings. They can be nurtured where they are, but since Mother Nature doesn't always plant her seeds exactly where we want them, you will probably want to move them to a better location.
You can also harvest the seeds to use next year. Choose a few fully mature and ripened flower heads, and cut them, leaving a nice long stem. Hang the flowers upside down with the flower heads enclosed in paper bags. This will allow them to release their seeds into the bag when they are ready. Once the seeds have fallen, remove the chaff (plant debris) and spread the seeds out on a newspaper for 10-12 days to finish drying. They will keep in the refrigerator in a glass jar with a tight fitting lid for up to a year.
This is an easy way to keep a ready supply of seeds for yourself and to exchange with other gardeners. The only trick is to make sure you have a fully mature flower head so that you will harvest mature, viable seeds.
Older, established plants can be divided. In cold climates plants should be divided in late summer or spring. In warm climates, divide your plants in fall or spring. Here are four easy steps to dividing Echinacea plants.
1. Start by loosening the soil around the perimeter of a mature plant's root system, then insert your spade under the plant and lift it up. Shake the plant gently to remove excess soil.
2. Pull the root clump apart or cut it apart with a sharp knife. Each division should have its own roots and stems.
3. Plant each clump in soil that has been amended with compost and a balanced fertilizer.
4. Water regularly to keep the soil moist but not soggy until you see signs of new growth.
For medicinal purposes, you'll want to harvest some roots and some flower tops. For best quality, wait until your plants are 3 years old. Roots are harvested in the fall when the tops have gone to seed and the plants have experienced a couple of hard frosts. Tops are harvested just as the flowers start to open. Whether harvesting tops or roots, the dried herb will be good for one year. Be sure to date the jars containing the herb so you won't use them past their potency date.
1. Using a sharp knife cut off a portion of the root, leaving plenty for the plant to grow on.
2. Cut any pieces larger than 1 inch into smaller pieces to avoid mold growth during the drying process.
3. Wash thoroughly and pat dry.
4. Hang the root pieces or lay them out on screens in a well-ventilated area away from direct sunlight. If the pieces are large it may take several weeks for them to dry.
5. When completely dry, store in a tightly covered glass jar in cool, dark place.
Harvesting Flower Tops
1. Using a sharp knife, cut the plant at the point where the first healthy leaves are growing.
2. Lay the tops on a screen or hang them upside down in bundles out of direct sunlight. Make sure they aren't crowded so that air can't circulate around them.
3. When completely dry, the leaves will crumble when touched. Store them in glass jars with tight fitting lids in a cool, dry place.
Echinacea has traditionally been used to treat or prevent colds, flu, and other infections.
Echinacea is believed to stimulate the immune system to help fight infections.
Less commonly, echinacea has been used for wounds and skin problems, such as acne or boils.
When choosing an Echinacea product there are a number of factors which should be considered. Firstly, the most active part of this plant is the root. The best Echinacea products therefore contain either roots only or no more than 10% leaves, seeds and/or flowers.
Fresh roots are far more effective than dry roots. The form of choice is the fresh plant tincture, especially the alcohol-based tincture. Glycerin does not produce a complete extract, nor is it an effective preservative. However, some of the components of Echinacea are complex carbohydrates which can break down in the presence of high alcohol concentrations. An Echinacea tincture should therefore not contain more than 35% alcohol. The effectiveness of Echinacea can be enhanced by combining more than one species and/or by combining it with other herbs which are synergistic in their actions. Finally, Echinacea and other herbs with which it is combined should be certified organic or wild crafted.
When being used for preventative purposes, it is taken 3 times per day for periods of 1 to 2 weeks and then stopped for a period of time. The weaker the person's immune system, the shorter the break. During the cold and flu season, a typical individual who is relatively healthy might take it one week per month. Although Echinacea is non-toxic even when taken continuously over a period of months, it will lose it's effectiveness if taken for prolonged periods without a break. When being used in the treatment of chronic immune imbalances, Echinacea is taken as above except more often (usually 3 to 4 times per day for 1 week out of 2 or 2 weeks out of 3). In the case of acute infections such as colds and flu, begin by taking Echinacea or an Echinacea combination every 1 to 2 hours until the worst of the symptoms break, then slowly reduce the frequency of the dose as the symptoms improve. Do not take it less than 3 times per day until several days after the condition has completely cleared up. It is also a good idea to take it for another week after taking a 1 to 2 week break.
Most herbs including Echinacea are best taken on an empty stomach (at least 20 minutes before a meal or 2 hours after). It is important to remember that the most common mistake made when using this herb is waiting for a day or two after the onset of an infection before heading off to the local health food store to pick some up. Be prepared! Keep some Echinacea or an Echinacea combination or two in your house at all times. The more specific the combination and the sooner you start taking it, the faster it will work. It is usually possible to detect a cold or flu coming on several hours to a day before the symptoms begin. Listen to your body. If taken every hour or two at this point Echinacea will often prevent the infection from developing at all!
Side Effects and Cautions
When taken by mouth, echinacea usually does not cause side effects. However, some people experience allergic reactions, including rashes, increased asthma, and anaphylaxis (a life-threatening allergic reaction). In clinical trials, gastrointestinal side effects were most common.
People are more likely to experience allergic reactions to echinacea if they are allergic to related plants in the daisy family, which includes ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, and daisies. Also, people with asthma or atopy (a genetic tendency toward allergic reactions) may be more likely to have an allergic reaction when taking echinacea.
General Safety Advisory
The information in these documents do not replace medical advice.
Before taking an herb or a botanical, consult a doctor or other health care provider -- especially if you have a disease or medical condition, take any medications, are pregnant or nursing, or are planning to have an operation.
Before treating a child with an herb or a botanical, consult with a doctor or other health care provider.
Like drugs, herbal or botanical preparations have chemical and biological activity. They may have side effects. They may interact with certain medications. These interactions can cause problems and can even be dangerous.
If you have any unexpected reactions to an herbal or a botanical preparation, inform your doctor or other health care provider.
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