Learn to harvest and make medicine from this immune-boosting plant
By Susan Belsinger and Tina Marie Wilcox
We cultivate the echinacea because they are handsome perennial-flowering plants that add height and color to our gardens and show off their splendid coneheads throughout the summer and into the fall. Butterflies and birds are attracted to these pink, purple, pale lavender, white, and yellow coneflowers. After the flowering season, when the plants go dormant in the colder weather, we reap the health benefits of echinacea by harvesting the roots and making our own tinctures. This is not difficult to do, and it is both rewarding and fulfilling work. We feel that making tinctures from our own organically grown plants is the best medicine possible.
Echinacea has been used medicinally for centuries by Native Americans to combat many ailments. Echinacea stimulates the immune system and its antiviral activities help fight colds and flu, as well as promote the healing of infections.
Our personal experience over many years of using the tincture has been that echinacea keeps us healthier; we find it helps us to avoid colds and flu, that it decreases the duration and severity of these symptoms, and it helps our bodies fight infections. We take echinacea tincture during the cold and flu season, at the first signs of a cold, or when we are fighting an infection, and especially when we travel and are around large groups of people. We also apply the tincture topically to inflammations such as hangnails, bug bites, and toothaches.
Persons with impaired immune systems should avoid using immunostimulants. Also, because echinacea is a member of the aster/daisy family (which ragweed is a relative), some individuals may be allergic to it.
Of the nine species of echinacea, we tincture Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower) and E. pallida (pale purple coneflower). Closely related to E. pallida and also known as pale purple coneflower is E. simulata, which would be an easy third choice for herb gardeners in the regions of the Ozark Mountains (to which it is endemic). E. paradoxa (yellow coneflower) is simply too rare and beautiful to dig up and tincture. E. angustifolia (narrow-leaved purple coneflower) is native to dry prairies and struggles in areas with high humidity. E. tennesseensis (Tennessee purple coneflower) and E. laevigata (smooth coneflower) are listed on the federal endangered species list. Other rare species include E. atrorubens, which grows in eastern Kansas and Oklahoma, and E. sanguinea, which is found in Louisiana and eastern Texas, with one population in southwestern Arkansas.
E. purpurea is easy to grow in most garden soils and blooms all summer in our gardens. The leaves are oval-shaped and coarsely toothed. Long purple rays (petals) stand out from the cone and droop only slightly. The cone has bright orange bristles at the top. These plants can take full sun or partial shade; they self-sow and reproduce easily from division during the dormant season. The seed does not require a moist chilling period (stratification) to germinate. Purchased seed can be planted in the late summer or fall to mimic nature’s timing. Ripe seed from your own garden plants can be shaken out of the cones as soon as they are mature and loose in the heads. Otherwise, the finches will plant for you as they feed on the protein-rich seeds.
E. pallida is native to prairies and glades from Arkansas to Wisconsin, eastern Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. It has a shorter but earlier bloom time than E. purpurea. The flowers appear from May to June in Zone 6 gardens such as ours and are finished by July. The flowers stand on tall stems. The rays are pale purple to white and are longer than E. purpurea and droop down from the cone. The leaves are also longer than E. purpurea and are lance-shaped, coarse, and hairy. E. pallida likes full sun but will tolerate light shade. It prefers rather poor, rocky soils and excellent drainage. This plant may be grown from seed or division. The seed will germinate best with a cold, damp conditioning period of four to six weeks or when planted in the fall. Fresh dry seeds, harvested and planted just as the seeds become loose in the cone, germinate the very best. E. pallida has thick taproots.
Most E. pallida and E. angustifolia commercial tinctures have been made with wild-crafted
plants. There is concern for the declining wild populations of these plants because of the global demand for echinacea products. In cultivating these two echinacea species in the field, there are some promising new developments. Fortunately, most of the plants used to make E. purpurea tincture are cultivated. When buying echinacea tincture, we look for organically grown E. purpurea tincture.
As herbal consumers, we can participate in the conservation of native populations of echinacea by growing our own plants and making our own tinctures. Making herbal remedies is as grounding and fulfilling as growing our own food. We want to make our own echinacea tincture from the plants in our herb gardens because we can have our plants and our tincture, too.
Leaves and flowers can be selectively pruned and tinctured in the summer. This practice prolongs blooming and increases the air circulation around the plant. The plant should be in its second year of growth so that it has had a chance to establish a good root system. With a light hand and the intent to leave the plant in good shape, harvest flowering stems as if you were making a bouquet. Cut the stem above a node (which is a place on a stem where leaves or other stems emerge) or at the crown (which is the point at the base of a plant where the stem and root meet).
As echinacea ages, clumps are formed with new plants sprouting around the original plant. The oldest plants in the clump may decline as the younger vigorous plants compete for nutritional resources. Dividing the clumps regenerates the plants and gives a perfect opportunity to harvest the roots for tincture. For tincturing, we choose echinacea plants that are at least three years old.
We harvest echinacea roots by digging a circle 11/2 to 2 feet out from the drip line of the plant. Then we sink a garden spading fork (a shovel works, too) deeply into the soil, and lean back on the tool handle to gently lift the root ball. The roots grow deep and wide. The idea is to harvest as much root as possible.
Keep the tops of the plants intact with the roots so that the echinacea
will be easy to identify from the roots of neighboring plants. Tracing the roots from the crown is a sure way to learn the differences in underground parts.
Shake and massage the soil and unwanted plant roots from the clump. This is a good time to kill a few weeds. Leave as much soil as possible in the garden.
Preparing the roots
Once harvested, we carefully separate the plants in the clump. First, we decide which new shoots to put aside for replanting and carefully trim away the roots for tincture, leaving enough for the crown of the plant to survive. Then we trim roots from the crowns that we will replant. Once this is done, it is important to loosely wrap the plants and crowns in damp paper towels and put them into plastic bags so that they don’t dry out. They will keep this way, for a few days if necessary, until we can replant them. However, we like to get them back into the earth as soon as possible (see “Replanting the crowns” on page 27 for more information).
Next comes the washing process. Scrub larger roots with a brush and rinse and rub the thinner, fibrous roots to be sure to remove any grit. Place all of the washed roots in a colander to drain.
Separate the larger roots from the finer ones. A heavy-duty sharp knife and wooden cutting board are essential for chopping the large, thick, hard stems. Slice big roots crosswise into rounds (as if cutting carrots) and then chop them into smaller pieces. Once chopped, put them aside and chop the finer roots coarsely.
Making the tincture
We use a large pharmaceutical porcelain mortar and pestle to pound the echinacea roots. Begin with the larger root pieces, using the pestle to crush them. This takes a little bit of time, but it is pleasant work. Once the hard woody pieces are pretty well mashed, remove them and add the smaller chopped roots. Make a mash out of these and then combine all of the roots. Add a little of the menstruum (see below) to the roots, to help with the pounding, if necessary.
A menstruum is the liquid used to extract the soluble principles from the herbs or roots. It can be alcohol, vinegar, or vegetable glycerin for a nonalcoholic tincture. We use 90- or 100-proof vodka, which provides the proper ratio of water to alcohol. A combination of both alcohol (at least 25 percent) and water is needed to extract all of the constituents from the herbs. If we use Everclear, which is a pure-grain alcohol at 190 proof, we dilute it with half distilled water. You can use another alcohol such as rum or gin, if you prefer.
Measure and transfer the pounded root into a clean glass jar with a plastic lid. The ratio of echinacea root to menstruum is 1 to 2. If there is 1 cup of root, add 2 cups of menstruum. Put the lid on the jar and label it with the date.
Leave (macerate) the tincture for two to six weeks, or longer if you like, in a cool, dark place. We prefer to leave our tinctures for the longer amount of time. Shake the tincture twice daily, in the morning and the evening. Aboveground tinctures (leaves, flowers, and/or stems) should only be infused for forty-eight hours, because the beneficial compounds begin to break down.
When your tincture is ready, strain it through a strainer lined with fine cheesecloth (we find that a yogurt cheese maker is ideal for this). Mash down on the roots to extract every last bit of essence from them.
Tincture should be stored in dark glass bottles in a cool place, away from light. We save bottles for this purpose and pick up new rubber droppers at the health-food store (rubber on old droppers tends to disintegrate with age). Be sure to label your tinctures and date them.
Echinacea tincture can be taken straight by the dropperful or diluted in water. Or its earthy, rather medicinal taste can be disguised in fruit juice.
Replanting the crowns
After making your tincture, you can put the echinacea crowns back in your garden (see “Preparing the roots” on page 26 for more information). First, take the crowns to a sunny place in the garden. Dig a hole 4 inches deep by 12 inches in diameter for each plant. Remove any weeds, especially the roots of perennial grasses. Break up dirt clods. Replace enough prepared soil in the hole to set the crown on so that the top surface of the plant is slightly above the top surface of the soil in the rest of the bed.
Pour a little water in around the crown to settle the soil and remove air pockets. Add more soil under the crown if it settles into the hole too deeply. Spread the plant roots out from the center of the plant. Pull the remainder of the soil around the roots. Your goal is to plant the crown so that it is at the same ground level as it was before you dug it up to harvest the roots—not too deep and not too shallow. Water around the plant and check that there are no roots sticking up above the soil.
Check back in a day or two and after rains to be sure that the roots are still under the ground. Water weekly during dry periods for six weeks or so.
Susan Belsinger is a culinary educator, food writer, and photographer who travels throughout the country giving lectures and demonstrations on subjects including herbs, edible flowers, chiles, garlic, vegetarian cooking, and cooking with kids, as well as using herbs for a healthy lifestyle in the home and for aromatherapy. She has co-authored several best-selling, award-winning cookbooks and writes articles for many national magazines.
Tina Marie Wilcox has been the head gardener and herbalist at the Ozark Folk Center’s Heritage Herb Garden in Mountain View, Arkansas, since 1984. She tends the extensive gardens, plans and coordinates annual herbal events and workshops, and facilitates the production of sale plants, seeds, and herbal products for the park. Wilcox also presents educational and entertaining herb programs at the Ozark Folk Center and throughout the United States.