Echinacea has potent antiseptic and antibiotic actions and is best known for its ability to enhance overall immune function.
From the Asteraceae family, echinacea includes about 9 different species, the most common of which being angustifolia and purpurea. It is native to the United States and can be found growing as a wildflower in the prairies from the Midwest to Texas. It is mostly cultivated in Europe and it is often grown as an ornamental plant in many gardens due to its beautiful purplish blossoms.
The constituents of Echinacea include oil and resin, both in the wood and bark, as well as caffeic acid derivatives (such as cichoric acid, echinacoside, verbascoside, chlorogenic acid and isochlorogenic acid), polysaccharides, including inulin (5.9%) and fructans, flavonoids (including rutoside, luteolin, kaempferol, quercetin, apigenin and isorhamnetin), alkamides, polysaccharides, two phytosterols, fatty acids, betaine and sucrose.
The dried root, flower heads, seeds and rhizome are all harvested for medicinal use, and are made into various forms, including capsules, extracts, tinctures and tea. Echinacea purpurea has very similar medicinal properties to echinacea angustifolia.
Historically, echinacea was widely used by Native Americans. The Plains Indians used it as their primary medicine, applying echinacea root poultices to all types of wounds, including bites from snakes and insects. They also used it for tooth and gum pain, and drank an echinacea tea concoction to treat colds, arthritis pain, measles and smallpox. In the early 20th century, research showed that echinacea had immune stimulating properties, such as the ability to increase white blood cell counts.
Studies have shown it both prevents colds, and reduces the duration of existing colds and fever, and similar results were observed in studies with upper respiratory tract infections. It also has useful properties as an aphrodisiac.