Friday, August 16, 2013

Healing from the Garden - The Purple Coneflower

I don't write much about self sufficiency skills. If you look at my sidebar there are a number of people who can take care of about any need when times are tough and money, electricity and city provided running water are at a minimum. Men and women who do it and write about it better than I.  But I was chatting with a friend on the phone last weekend after coming in from the yard and when I mentioned this plant, she asked as to the particulars for tending to it.

I'm no expert,  just learning the essentials from good friends with knowledge of all the basics.  Food for about six months, plenty of water and a way to treat more, wild game processing necessities, and enough dog food to keep Barkley happy for a while. Plus eloading supplies, medical supplies (both human and animal), books, warmth and light. Most of which many of you have a handle on.
But there's one thing around the place that many of you may have in your gardens and not know what it is. The purple cone flower. Echinacea purpurea (Asteraceae). Echinacea comes from the Greek word echinos meaning hedgehog in reference to the spiny center cone. It's a simple, but beautiful bloomer from as early as June to fall, with a bloom that attracts bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects (always welcome). The dead flower stems will remain erect well into the winter and, if the flower heads are not removed, they will atract goldfinches who perch on or just below the blackened cones to feed on the seeds. This unique plant grows fairly high, up to 3 feet to get some height above nearby grasses. Common in prairie beds, it can be found throughout much of the Midwest. It does well in the cold but doesn't like overly wet soils.

Echinacea plants are available in most commercial garden centers but they tend to be overpriced. Luckily, they are easy to grow from the seeds. Plant the seeds in early spring, as soon as the soil can be worked, and when you still expect another frost or two. Sow the seeds 1/4" deep and 2" apart. When you've got a bunch of seedlings at least an inch tall, thing them to 18" apart. Rabbits and hedgehogs think new echinacea shoots are the perfect breakfast treat, so you will need to protect the seedlings if your beds are frequented by the little critters.Echinacea has been widely used by Native Americans, particularly the Plains Indians, for hundreds of years as an antiseptic, an analgesic (pain killer) and for the treatment of snakebites. Echinacea is also used extensively by herbalists to boost the immune system, help speed wound healing, reduce inflammations, treat colds and flu (though once you get the flu a tincture of thyme works better as it's a natural expectorant)  and fight infection.

 A growing collection of scientific evidence now supports Echinacea's contribution to stimulating the immune system due to a rich host of polysaccharides and phytosterols, unique to this plant. While there are studies indicating that the whole plant has medicinal virtues, (which is why I'm including harvesting  information for the whole plant) it is traditionally the root that is used. Herbal remedies are not intended to replace trained medical care, especially if you have children.  But they can provide a host of health benefits and in the absence of medical care, due to a disaster of some sort, may prove to be a blessing.

For medicinal purposes, you'll want to harvest some roots and some flower tops. For best quality, experts say to wait until the plants are about 3 years old and harvest in the fall when the tops have gone to seed and the plants have seen a hard frost or two during their lifetime. The tops should be harvested just as the flowers start to open. Whether harvesting the tops or roots, the dried herb is good for a year and should be marked and discarded if not used by then.
To Harvest the roots:
Cut off a portion of the root, leaving plenty for the plant to grow on. (aren't you happy you keep those sharp knifes handy? Cut into pieces small than one inch. (large ones may have mold growth during the drying process).

Wash thoroughly and gently pat dry with clean towels.

Lay them out on screens in a well-ventilated area away from direct sunlight. The larger pieces may take several weeks to dry depending on humidity levels. Don't overcrowd them.

When completely dry, store in tightly covered glass jar in a cool place away from sunlight.
To Harvest the Flower Top
Cut the plant at the point where the first healthy leaves are growing.

Lay the tops on a screen or bundle and hang upside down out of direct sunlight. Don't overcrowd tham as air circulation will help the process.

When completely dry, the leaves will crumble to the touch.

 Store in a tightly sealed glass jar in a cool place away from sunlight.

To find out more about making tinctures, salves, syrups, antiseptics, sprays, and many other simple remedies with this handy plant, see Growing and Using Echinacea by Kathleen Brown.  It's a great little book for less than $4 and has a lot of good information.

3 comments:

  1. Gosh and I just want to plant them because they are beautiful !

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  2. Good information. There are numerous books out there on herbal remedies. Some of the native American uses for common plants (like the tule)are fascinating.

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  3. Ditto what Jane said. I thought that as soon as I saw them.

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