Week of August 2, 2016 - Ode to Coneflowers

Tuesday, August 02, 2016 6:11 PM | Wise Woman (Administrator)

Ode to Coneflowers

My initial study of herbs and herbal medicine, in the 1960s, introduced me to goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis), an herb I took an instant dislike to. Too bitter, too bitter, too bitter by far. “No pain, no gain,” never seemed reasonable to me. I prefer to approach life and healing from the standpoint of: “No pleasure, no treasure.”

Yet, I did need an anti-infective herb, something a little stronger than yarrow. I scoured the old Eclectic herbals and discovered their appreciation for a root that grew in Kansas. I could not abide the common name they used for it, and so determined that I would call it by its botanical name: Echinacea.

I reasoned that goldenseal grew far away from people, so it did not want to be used very often. And it has never grown profusely, indicating that doses ought to be kept small. While Echinacea loves to grow where people live, and it grows in abundance, so it can be use often and profusely. And that is what more and more people are doing: using – and growing – echinacea, purple coneflower, the herb that nourishes health instead of threatening it.

When I look around and see the many, many private and public places with stands of echinacea – few of which are ever harvested for medicine, mind you – I smile and feel glad that I never liked goldenseal.

Three Colors of Coneflower
Caught together in one garden bed: a purple, a white, and a yellow coneflower. Yellow is the predominant color of the aster family, as in golden rod yellow and dandelion yellow. But purple-blue –red is a close second with thistles and coneflowers showing off their colors. This white echinacea appears to be a sport (a natural genetic mutation) for all its sisters are purple. But there are wild white echinaceas as well as hybrid ones. The compounds in echinacea root that help counter infection give a tingle to the tongue, so if you are uncertain as to the wisdom of tincturing any particular echinacea or black-eyed Susan, just chew on the root for a few minutes and see if your mouth feels tingly or numb. If it doesn’t, no sense in making medicine of it.

Echinacea purpurea

A dense stand of purple coneflower at the library in town, far enough away from the deer to have a beautiful sweep of flowers. My Echinacea grows well but the goats and the deer eat all the flowers and flower buds. This is harvested after three years of growth and used to help the immune system combat all kinds of bacterial infections.

Echinacea purpurea
This close-up shows the intense structure of the individual Echinacea flower, which is really many little flowers grouped together to look like one flower. Tricky! Each “petal” is a whole flower and each of those orange points in the cone is an entire flower. Coneflowers, like sunflowers, have sterile petal flowers and fertile cone flowers.

Echinacea purpurea
Isn’t this a lovely shade of salmon? And the plant is shorter and more compact than most purpureas. There are so many different echinaceas to choose from now, thanks to breeders’ efforts, and all of them offer medicinal roots. Remember not to dig roots until the plants are at least three years old, and – for best results – tincture within a few minutes of harvest.

Rudbeckia hirta
Black-eyed Susans show off their kinship to the Echinacea in the same library flowerbed. Often called Gloriosa Daisies (yes, daisy is another coneflower), these plants are amazingly tough with plenty of resistance to drought and bad weather. The wild ones are yellow, but there are some delicious red (cherry brandy) cultivars. Some sources say Rudbeckia roots are as strong as Echinacea roots when prepared and used in the same way.

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