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Echinacea: in praise of our prickly, purple-y autumn friend.

Almost every gardener recognizes echinacea as that pinkish-purple daisy like flower with a spiky seed head also known as purple coneflower. Drought tolerant and pest resistant, it's a colorful and undemanding addition to many southern landscapes. Those same gardeners who recognize echinacea's colorful bloom may buy a tincture of the same plant (Echinacea angustifolia) at the store for its reported anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and immune-boosting properties. But let me tell you how easy it is to make your own tincture by harvesting fresh echinacea root from the garden.

The botanical name Echinacea angustifolia comes from the Latin root, "spiny-covered," which pretty well describes the seed head of the flower. In the Doctrine of Signatures, wherein we divine the use or affinity of a plant, based on its unique physiology, "spiny-covered" certainly suggests a plant with some defensive properties. Indeed, Michael Murray, N.D., in his book The Healing Power of Herbs, cites research describing how echinacea works to promote an immune response within the body. When viruses attack, Murray explains, they secrete an enzyme that dissolves our cell walls; this is how a virus invades our body. It's believed that echinacea inhibits that enzyme and thus prevents the virus from replicating.

I know there's been some negative press about echinacea in recent months, questioning whether it works or not, and I'm not going to address that one way or another. I will say that personally, I'd rather make a tincture from garden fresh root, than pop a dusty capsule from a discount mart any day. It's good to check up on the supplements you buy. Are they process correctly, and do they come from a reputable company? When you make your own, you know exactly what's going into your remedy.

So, if you want to make your own tincture, you need only a few supplies and ingredients. First, of course, you need some fresh Echinacea root. I am fortunate to purchase mine dug fresh from the garden of a wonderful local herbalist and friend. Each fall she digs up a pound of fresh root, which she cleans and delivers to me in person. This is my supply for the winter. I purchase a liter of vodka; the cheapest is fine. I use a good sharp knife, and chop the root as finely as possible; the more surface in contact with the vodka, the better.

Then, I put the chopped root into a clean glass jar--a mayo jar with plastic lid works well, but don't use metal-lidded canning jars, which will corrode from contact with the alcohol--then I fill the jar about two-thirds full with the chopped root, and top up with the vodka. I leave the tincture, labeled and dated, in a dark cupboard for six to eight weeks, after which time I strain and decant into dark glass bottles with plastic tops for storage. Be sure to label and date your bottles of tincture. I try to use mine up within twelve months.

So, how are you supposed to use it, and when, and why? What, in other words, would constitute a 'dose' of tincture? That's a good question, and I can only offer a ballpark guideline: a couple of tablespoons, slurped neat, or sipped in a cup of tea, constitute a 'dose' for me. I might take several doses a day, if I feel run down, or have been exposed to illness. Some folks are used to counting out drops, and formulating their dosage that way, but that has always seemed too fastidious and cautious a method for me.

By the way, one way of testing whether you have good quality echinacea root is to hold a chunk of the fresh root to your tongue: the effect should be an immediate tingling and numbing sensation. Call me a jaded skeptic, but I suspect the green powder sold in the discount marts labeled "echinacea" just doesn't measure up, by this sign of quality and freshness.

This information is offered for educational purposes only and is not meant to replace the advice of a health care professional.

Suzann Roalman is a massage therapist and herbalist, with gardens in Athens, Ga., and Brevard, N.C. She can be reached at and will gladly conduct a tincturing workshop, if there is sufficient interest.

Marty Slack grows Echinacea, golden seal and other medicinal and culinary herbs in her garden in Athens, Ga. and can be reached at 706-549-2860.

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Title Annotation:digging in
Author:Roalman, Suzann
Publication:New Life Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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