Echinacea: How to grow and use this powerful antibiotic and immune-stimulant

This post is part of Terrifically Useful Tuesday looking at the immense benefits plants have for people. See more in this series here.

If there is one plant image that has come to epitomise herbal medicine and good health in the last two decades, it would be the purple cone flower of echinacea. Splashed on supplements, chemist walls, natural healing centres, echinacea was the best selling herb of the 1990s. It’s prominence is well-deserved offering a range of potent medicines and a strong alternative to pharmaceutical antibiotics for Staphylococcus, Streptococcus and tuberculosis.

In our ever-escalating chemical arms race with germs, we look set to come off as the losers. Each year seems to see the mass-outbreak of drug-resistant bacteria and viruses that modern medicine just can’t seem to nail. Plants, especially herbs, offer our greatest hope.  So why is it that plant therapies can work where the pharnmaceutical companies are failing? Complexity in nature, is a fine thing.

Pharmaceutical companies rely on incomplete science and market-driven solutions, to produce patentable isolates that are quick, efficient and cost-effective to get to market. For instance, penicillin has one chemical constituent-penicillin. Bacteria that reproduces so quickly can easily find a way around that one mechanism. Plants on the other hand have far more complexity. They have had hundreds of thousands of years to evolve their complex chemical compounds that work together to produce strong and effective medicines. This complexity makes it difficult for bacteria to bypass the plant medicine’s actions.

Echinacea’s complexity makes it a potent healer

Echinacea has complexity. The plant contains many chemicals that play a role in its therapeutic effects, including polysaccharides, glycoproteins, alkamides, volatile oils, and flavonoids.

Echinacea was highly valued as a medicinal herb by Native Americans and early settlers there, treating weeping wounds, boils, abscesses and snakebite. There are nine species of Echinacea of which two are used medicinally Echinacea angustifolia and E. purpurea. E. angustifolia, the narrow-leaf form, is the most cited in herbal medicine work as it is considered more potent. It is usually wild-harvested in the US and therefore the most expensive.  E.purpurea has a broad leaf and is the most common as it is easier and faster to grow. It is still highly regarded amongst herbalists and those relevant chemical compounds seem to be consistent across the varieties.

Today, echinacea has a well researched and confirmed reputation for enhancing immune function. There are multiple lab and animal studies suggesting echinacea also relieves pain, reduces inflammation, and has hormonal, antiviral and antioxidant effects. For this reason, echinacea is recommended to treat a large range of infections, inflammations, hay fever, cold sores and slow-healing wounds. The effects on colds and flu are unclear with plenty of for and against studies. But it seems the quality of the plant extract taken seems to be the greatest area for dispute.

How to take echinacea

The University of Maryland Medical Center indicates that adults:

For general immune system stimulation, during colds, flu, upper respiratory tract infections, or bladder infections, choose from the following forms and take 3 times a day until you feel better, but not for more than 7 – 10 days:

  • 1 – 2 grams dried root or herb, as tea
  • 2 – 3 mL of standardized tincture extract
  • 6 – 9 mL of expressed juice (succus)
  • 300 mg of standardized, powdered extract containing 4% phenolics
  • Tincture (1:5): 1 – 3 mL (20 – 90 drops)
  • Stabilized fresh extract: 0.75 mL (15 – 23 drops)
  • Apply creams or ointments for slow-healing wounds as needed.

It also states that people who are immune-compromised should not take echinacea due to possible drug-interactions.

How to grow Echinacea purpurea

Echinacea sales represent 10% of the dietary supplement market in the United States. For those of us who can’t afford these supplements, try growing your own patch of purple health in your cultivated beds.

Echinacea pupurea is best treated as a biennial and sown from seed. (Please note that seeds can take around 3 weeks to germinate). Best to sow pre-soaked seed into trays in early autumn, transplanting into the garden in spring. You’ll see flowering before the end of the next autumn. Echinacea loves full sun and can handle drought and wind, requiring only around 25mm of water per week through summer. Slugs and snails are its worst enemies.

For New Zealand readers: I have Echinacea purpurea seeds for sale, contact me here.

Echinacea purpurea tincture made from flowerheads

The best time to harvest echinacea flowerheads is when they are coming into flower and are at about one-twelth flowering (one in twelve flowers are open). Gather a large amount of the aerial parts including flowerheads and buds.  This is when the active constituents in the aerial parts are in their prime. (If you do this early enough in the season you’ll probably be able to get a second go over).

To make the tincture you take the fresh clippings and add them to as high a proof alcohol as you can find, to the ratio of one part plant to two parts alcohol. Mix in a blender before placing in a glass jar and leaving on a sunny windowsill. Shake every day for two weeks before straining out the plant material and store the liquid in a cool, dark place.

Links to research supporting echinacea’s efficacy

Continue reading ‘Echinacea: How to grow and use this powerful antibiotic and immune-stimulant’


Edible Backyard Summer Festival

The lovely Kath Irvine has invited to give seedsaving workshops at the Edible Backyard Summer Festival this February. I’ll also have the new collection of LovePlantLife Seeds available. Very excited! I’ve been to a herbal workshop at Kath’s before and can’t wait to spend two days back there in her wonderful garden with such a fantastic group of presenters.

There are no doorsales for this event so email kath@ediblebackyard.co.nz to book your place today!



Seedlovers, please meet Sophie Munns. She’s amazing!


Terrifically Useful Tuesday: Fungi will save the world, one hypha at a time

This post is part of Terrifically Useful Tuesday looking at the immense benefits plants have for people. See more in this series here.

Paul Stamets: Mycelium Running

For a truly mind-blowing experience you need to see this video. Hell, everyone needs to see it–you won’t look at the earth the same way again. Microscopic cells called mycelium—the fruit of which are mushrooms—recycle carbon, nitrogen, and other essential elements as they break down plant and animal debris in the creation of rich new soil. These mycelium can help save the universe in six specific ways:

  • Mycoremediation – decompose toxic wastes and pollutants,

  • Mycofiltration – catch and reduce silt from streambeds and pathogens from agricultural watersheds),

  • Mycopesticides – control insect populations,

  • Mycoforestry and Myco-gardening – generally enhance the health of our forests and gardens,

  • Myco-pharmaceuticals – treating smallpox, tuberculosis and flu

  • Mycocolonisation – terraform other worlds in our galaxy by sowing a mix of fungal spores and other seeds to create an ecological footprint on a new planet.


Love the video? Buy the book: Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets at The Book Depository.

Want proof? Pestalotiopsis microspora eats plastic!

Quick, cheap and easy to produce but taking an extremely long time to breakdown, polyurethane is everywhere. But an Amazonian fungi can eat it for breakfast (and lunch, and dinner).

Polyurethane is one of the most commonly used plastics.  Trouble with all plastics-how do you get rid of it? When burned polyurethane releases hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide, so of course it ends up in landfills.

Future landfills could be seeded with the hungry fungi Pestalotiopsis microspora to chomp through all those discarded garden hoses, mattresses, shoes, sportswear, composite wood panels, foam seating, insulation panels, seals and gaskets, tyres, adhesives, surface coatings and sealants, spandex, carpet underlay and hard-plastic parts.

P. microspora resides in the Ecuadorian rainforest and was discovered by a group of student researchers led by molecular biochemistry professor Scott Strobel as part of Yale’s annual Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory. Student Pria Anand discovered that the fungi ate polyurethane and could even do so in anaerobic conditions.

This is huge news for waste management. Another fine example of fungi saving the world (for others see Paul Stamet’s fine work, video above) and should be applauded as such. But how will this affect the fungi? A steady stream of trash in, what comes out? How will the fungi evolve based on this new diet?

P. microspora has another significantly beneficial use for humans. The fungi is an endophyte of certain yew trees (Taxus spp.), meaning it lives happily within the yew not causing disease. Endophytes can produce some of the same bioactive natural products as the host plant. In this case taxol, a high-effective anticancer agent is produced by the fungus as well.

Biodegradation of Polyester Polyurethane by Endophytic Fungi

Yale researchers find fungus that can break down plastic



A little music for your weekend’s gardening work


Plants in the mail

Decidedly average day for gardening but a wonderful day to have a box of plants arrive on your doorstep.

I got all excitey the other day as I discovered that the spectacular Leonotis leonorus also comes in white. So I immediately took to the internet  to track one down. Gourd, I love the internet! Low and behold, Cara Cottage Nursery had one and now it is all mine. Squee!

I couldn’t have my new little darling travelling alone so I added an Anemone ‘Luise Uhink’, a Geranium phaeum ‘Mourning widow’ and an Omphalodes ‘Cappadocia star’ to keep the little fella company. I’m so excited to welcome them all to LPL HQ.

Margaret from CCN was lovely, the plants arrived really well packed and in excellent condition and I’m sure this won’t be the last time she’ll be sending little boxes of plants to me. Totally recommended for your perennial requirements – Cara Cottage Nursery!

Images from Cara Cottage Nursery catalogue.

Terrifically Useful Tuesday: Kigelia – Sausage Tree

Image credit: bsterling @ FlickrCC licence

This post is part of Terrifically Useful Tuesday looking at the immense benefits plants have for people. See more in this series here.

One of the things I love about the internet is that you can set up systems to send you alerts for wonderful things. My french toast this morning was interrupted by sausages, actually sausage trees, thanks to an interesting auction on Trade Me.

Sausage trees are crazy looking things. Known as Kigelia africana in botanical circles, these sub-Saharan trees have berries that way around 12 kg and dangle from trees with the colour and shape of sausages. Those berries have a huge variety of uses in traditional and Western medicine. And you can now by the cream in NZ thanks TradeMe user gp.ca.johnson.

The tree’s fruit, bark, roots and leaves are all used for their curative properties – anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-amoebic and anti-skin-aging effects. And this TradeMe auction comes with some very good sources. I love it when people add scientific studies to support use. See refs below (I went and found the URLs so you can just click away).

The kigelia sausage tree grows prolifically across sub-Saharan tropical Africa and as far south as South Africa. It is also grown as an ornamental in Australia and parts of the US.

Kigelia is considered a very important tree economically and for the ecosystem around it. Bats pollinate the dark red and stinky flowers (which is quite odd as flowers pollinated by bats are usually white). Monkeys and elephants love the fruit.  Leaves are excellent livestock fodder. The fruit is poisonous to humans causing blistering and violent vomiting, but roasted fruits are used to flavour beer. The wood itself is used for canoes and when planted along river banks stops soil erosion.

Houghton P.J. (2002) The sausage tree (Kigelia africana): ethnobotany and recent scientific work. South African Journal of Botany 68: 14-20. 

Jackson, S. J., Houghton, P.J., Retsas, S. and Photiou, A. (2000). In Vitro Cytotoxicity of Norviburtinal and Isopinnatal from Kigelia pinnata Against Cancer Cell Lines. Planta Medica 66: 758- 761. (PDF)

Picerno, P., G. Autore, et al. (2005). Anti- inflammatory activity of verbinoside from Kigelia africana and evaluation of cutaneous irritation in cell cultures and reconstituted human epidermis. Journal of Natural Products 68: 1610-1614.

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