Name: Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia)
Otherwise known as: Cone Flower, Black Sampson
Habitat: A perennial member of the Compositae family growing to 1.5m in sandy soil with narrow, tapered, hairy leaves and producing pink to purple florets around a single-domed central cone. It has a rhizome that can grow to 1.5m in dry woodland. Native to North America it is now grown throughout the temperate regions.
What does it do: The plant takes its name from the Greek echinos for sea urchin, which refers to the dried seed head. All parts of Echinacea are used medicinally.
It first achieved prominence among early American settlers who were aware that the plains tribes used it extensively to treat wounds, burns, illness, abscesses and insect and snake bites. Travelling lay healers processed it in the late 1800s and sold it as a ‘cure-all’ at fairs and prayer meetings. Numerous anecdotal claims were made for its successful treatment of typhus, diphtheria, gangrene, tonsillitis and even appendicitis. It was favoured by the Eclectics, a group of North American settler physicians that embraced the herbal medicine practiced by the Native American medicine men.
A group of German scientists demonstrated the immune-enhancing properties of E. purpurea and this was rapidly followed by the pharmaceutical industry developing products for the market. Since the 1980s Echinacea has become one of the most popular herbal products used by the public to combat the common cold.
The pharmacology of Echinacea is complex and centres around the polyacetylenes and alkylamides, these are responsible for the tissue regeneration and immune-enhancing properties of the plant. It has the power to inhibit the enzyme hyaluronidase, which is known as the ‘spreading factor’; this is secreted by micro-organisms and is a component of snake venom, its purpose is to break down the ground substance, the intracellular cement that holds body cells together, thereby allowing the toxin to spread throughout the body. Not only does Echinacea prevent the breakdown of connective tissue, it stimulates the cells and fibroblasts that produce it.
This effect also appears to be directly responsible for the plant’s anti-inflammatory properties, it exerts a mild cortisone-like effect and promotes secretion of the adrenal hormones.
Inulin, one of the compounds found in the root, activates a part of the immune system known as the alternate complement pathway, this enhances the ability of white blood cells to penetrate and combat areas of infection. The plant elevates white blood cell counts when they are low and turns on the natural killer cells.
Echinacea has proven anti-viral properties and is used as a treatment for candidiasis, and chronic fatigue syndrome. It is also thought to have beneficial effect on those suffering from Aids and to have indirect anti-cancer activity due to its stimulation of macrophages to greater cytotoxic activity against tumour cells.
Compounds, decoctions and tinctures are used to treat acne and boils, mouth ulcers, cold sores, earache, chilblains, coughs, flu and bronchitis.