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...

18 comments:

  1. I think Nutrition Action the newsletter of the Center for Science in the Public Interest reviewed all the echinacea studies and concluded that there was no basis for the claim but I am not sure. I got really sick in Greece and was given medicine by a Greek doctor with no English. After a week I was hallucinating so badly I couldn't walk. It was codeine to which I am allergic.

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    1. Oh my, what a terrible thing! Thankfully Echinacea was fine for me, (and I didn't even think to ask about it since I don't have any allergies). I looked online for that article, but couldn't find it. I still only found articles about studies that disagreed. It would be nice to have some definitive studies that were not done by manufacturers!

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  2. I have one friend who swears by it for getting rid of a beginning cold. I have no experience with it. I can tell you that it continues to bloom through the fall and winter. Only weather in the 30's seemed to stop it.

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    1. My coneflowers also were one of the last things blooming in the garden before they finally froze. I love them - so hardy!

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  3. I've read about echinacea and always see it in the vitamin aisles. I've never tried it but now I'm wondering why not? I'm glad it helped you through your vacation, nothing worse than feeling ill away from home.

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    1. I hate getting sick away from home. I think I have seen various walk-in clinic doctors a lot more than I've seen my own doctor!

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  4. I think they work...we take them but I also think one needs to know what you are buying. Some of those sold in stores are more pure than others. I had to giggle about you thinking you were getting antibiotics. I had to get something for a sunburn when we were in Tenerife and I got told off by the pharmacist in Spanish. I had no clue what he was saying but he shook his finger at me a lot. :)

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    1. Maybe whatever you were saying was offensive in Spanish? Or he really doesn't like tourists who don't apply sunscreen enough? :) Too funny.
      That is definitely true that you need to really see what echinacea you are buying and get it from a reputable company. I read somewhere that some echinacea supplements that are sold are mainly filler and contain very little actual echinacea. Some people will do anything for money!

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  5. I've never tried echinacea for a cold, but after fighting a cold and sore throat for over a week, I'm willing to try anything! The problem with herbal supplements from what I've read is that it's hard to know what you're getting--some companies are better than others. I also read something about being careful about collecting it from your garden. I don't remember what the warning was, but I'd definitely read up on it before making your own echinacea tea. Whether it really works or not, coneflowers are my favorite flower--I know they make the butterflies happy!

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    1. There are definitely some sketchy companies that sell echinacea supplements that are mainly filler and don't contain much echinacea. So far I think the kind I got in Italy has been the most potent. (Those exotic European supplements, ha!) I would definitely research before using the stuff out of my garden - I certainly don't want to make myself sick, which would be my luck!
      I hate those colds you just can't kick. I hope you feel better soon!

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  6. Living in our new hot climate I'm learning to love the Eckies...they come in a huge array of colors, are so heat tolerant, and have the pretties of spiky cones all winter, what's not to love,

    Jen

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    1. They are so hardy, and so tolerant of both the heat and the cold! I have had some hybrids that were a little less hardy (though I probably stressed them out by putting them in too much shade.) I love how the birds and butterflies enjoy them, as well.

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  7. Sometimes I take cough drops that include Echinacea. I guess it helps. The thing that seems to work best for me, though, is green tea. Still, just looking at your pretty photos of these beautiful native flowers with monarchs is enough to cheer me up. :)

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    1. Glad you liked the photos! Sadly I really hate the taste of tea and don't drink it - it does sound so great and soothing for a sore throat! I would wonder if cough drops could contain enough echinacea to help, as most places seem to recommend taking around 900mg a day for several days.

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  8. Mr TG sent me out to get some the other day as I had the symptoms of a right stinker approaching (Note how he sent me out & didn't go out for me!! I digress). Anyway, the range of brands, formulations, instructions, warnings, side-effects & vagueness in how much to take daily was quite bewildering. I was so confused that I walked out empty handed. Definitely more research is needed, proof & clarification.
    No confusion in the garden though...they're beautiful flowers...FACT!

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    1. It's even worse trying to read all that and find a good brand with a foggy head from a bad cold! Where is the chivalry, Mr. TG? ;)

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  9. You are correct that the way the studies have been conducted makes it almost impossible to tell how effective Echinacea really is for colds. Until they improve the studies, just give me the hard stuff!

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    1. Whenever I went to the doctor for something growing up, they would always just tell me to get lots of rest and drink lots of fluids. Maybe that's why I don't go the doctor now unless it's dire - they never give me the good stuff! ;)

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