Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Prettiest Thieves

Here up North, one needs a lot of winter interest in the garden.

On either side of our front door, I planted deciduous Winterberry Holly bushes.

They were full of winter interest.

Even in the snow the bright berries stood out.

They evidently stood out a little too much.

They caught the eye of some local wildlife.

A family of bluebirds greatly enjoyed my winter interest bushes.

Now my bushes don't have nearly so much winter interest.

But I do garden for wildlife as well, so what can I say?  

They really were the prettiest thieves!

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Plant that Shines in the Winter: Coneflowers?

For our honeymoon, Mr. Red House took me to Italy.  Well, I don't usually get sick, but when I do, it's usually when I'm away from home (that's how my luck goes).  I wasn't feeling well there in Italy, so after attempting communication with an Italian pharmacist, they gave me a bottle labeled 'Echinacea'.  Being not nearly as an experienced gardener as I am now, I assumed 'Echinacea' was Italian for 'Antibiotics.'

It was quite a while before I found out that 'Echinacea' was, well, actually Latin for 'Coneflower', a genus of plants native to North America that is beloved by many gardeners for its beautiful flowers and hardiness...

Monarch butterfly on a Purple Coneflower
Now you can find Echinacea supplements for sale in just about every grocery store and drug store, touted as a boost for the immune system.  A lot of press has been given to Echinacea as a treatment to help cure or relieve symptoms of the common cold and flu - a big interest here during the winter flu season!

But does it actually work?

dried and powdered Echinacea purpurea
Well, modern studies seem to be quite mixed on the subject.  Various Native American tribes first used Echinacea angustifolia (also known as Narrow Leaf Coneflower) as a treatment for coughs and sore throats (which could be caused by colds), as well as for pain relief for such things as headaches, toothaches, and snake bites.  Apparently they first learned to use it from watching elk, who would search for and eat this plant when they were sick or wounded.

The blooms of Echinacea angustifolia (photo source US Department of Agriculture)
Modern studies have shown that taking Echinacea does increase the number of white blood cells and does boost the activity of immune cells.  But does that translate to curing your cold or helping you get over the flu faster?  That's where the studies disagree.  Some clinical trials have shown that people who take Echinacea as soon as they have cold or flu symptoms can reduce the severity and length of the sickness.  However, the results of other trials have shown that Echinacea was no better than a placebo.

So what's going on?  Well, it doesn't help that these supplements differ wildly in type, amount, and preparation.  Different supplement companies use different cultivars of Echinacea.  Some use the larger rooted Echinacea angustifolia  (Narrow Leaf Coneflower), others use the more easily cultivated Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower), and some even use Echinacea pallida (Narrow Petal Coneflower).  Different varieties are made up of slightly different chemical compounds.

Echinacea purpurea 'Magnus'
(I wonder if all these new named cultivars of Coneflowers also have the same medicinal properties.)
Also, different supplement companies also use different parts of the plant.  Traditionally, Native Americans chewed the roots or mashed the roots to make a poultice.  Echinacea sold at your local drug store could contain the roots, the stem, the flower, or a mix of everything.

I'm assuming by 'Aerial Part', they mean 'the flowers'.
Add all that to the fact that you can take Echinacea in the form of a powder, tincture, tea, ointment, or who knows what else, and I can see why the results of all these scientific studies seem to be all over the place!  More good, comprehensive studies are needed - but that takes money, and it is usually the companies selling the product that is willing to fund (and conduct!) these studies.

Another issue is that some people are over-harvesting wild Echinacea for the herbal industry at a faster pace than some of these wild species can repopulate.  Ack!
So did the Echinacea pills work for me in Italy?  I think so - at least, I recovered quickly and enjoyed the rest of our stay in Italy.  And I kept taking the Echinacea at various times as an immune booster when I felt myself getting sick.  In fact, I just recently took Echinacea to help me recover from a cold quickly.   For me, it does seem to help... or if it's the placebo effect, at least it convinces my mind that I'm feeling better, right?

Has anyone else tried Echinacea and found it to to help or not to help?

Maybe this summer I should dry and powder some of my garden Coneflower plants so I'll be all set for next winter's cold and flu season...

ps. Side effects of taking Echinacea seem to be pretty rare, but still, people allergic to echinacea, people with autoimmune disorders, and people taking certain medications shouldn't take it.  And please don't mix some Echinacea into your baby's bottle saying that, 'Indie from the Red House Garden seemed to think this stuff is okay.'  Use good judgment.  Don't drink and drive and take Echinacea.  Don't operate heavy machinery under the influence of this blog, and insert any other applicable disclaimers here...

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

My Grandmother's Garden

It is funny how gardens reflect the personality of the gardener.

Last week I flew to Texas for my Grandmother's funeral.  This is her garden, meticulously kept up for the past while by my aunt.  Her garden is all in order, organized and tidy, just like my Grandma liked things to be.

I always remember my Grandma as an elegant woman.  She had an eye for artistry and collected some beautiful things, a few of which she displayed in the garden.

She liked roses.  Several different types were planted in her garden, and a few were still blooming even in January.

My Grandmother also always had a good sense of humor, and didn't believe in taking life too seriously.

The garden looked so pretty even in winter.  I would have loved to have seen it in the spring or summer, with all the roses and lilies and birds-of-paradise blooming.

My grandmother would have said that this is the cycle of life.  
She will be missed.

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