Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Plant Profile: Echinacea

By Nina Berryman

There are two flowers open to U-pick right now and one of them is Echinacea, also known as Cone Flower. The Latin name is Echinacea purpurea, from the Greek ekhinos, meaning hedgehog or sea urchin. Echinacea is a member of the Asteraceae family.

Pop quiz: Name a common vegetable in your share that is also in this family!

If you said lettuce you are correct!

Lettuce and Echinacea may seem like unlikely relatives, but if you look at the flowers of lettuce, you’ll see some similarities. As you may recall from the paragraph about lettuce (way back in the spring), all plants in the Asteraceae family have composite flowers. Composite means the main “flower” head is actually made up of many, tiny flowers. If you look closely at the Echinacea, you’ll see in that the disc (the center part of the “flower” head) is made up of many little spikes. Each spike is an individual flower, known as a disc flower. The pink “petals” around the disk are actually flowers as well, known as ray flowers. The petals of the ray flower are all fused together and form what looks like one large petal. The Aster family contains the largest number of species in the northern latitudes.

Echinacea is well known for its immune boosting qualities. You can find Echinacea tea in many stores and the back of the box will say something along the lines of helping the immune system fight off a cold. Echinacea is both a preventative and curative medicine. You can build a tolerance to it, so consuming it all the time will reduce its efficacy. Use it for 5-7 days, then rest from using it for 3 days. All parts of the plant are medicinal: the root, the stalk, the leaves, and the flowers. The two easiest ways to make your own Echinacea medicine are teas and tinctures. To make a tea, I suggest harvesting the flower tops and letting them dry in a brown paper bag, in a dark, dry, warm place. When the heads are completely dry crush them up and add to hot water to make tea. To make a tincture, I suggest harvesting approximately 1/3 of the root (but not ours!) scrubbing it clean, chopping it into small pieces (the smaller the better), and drying it in the oven on low. Then put two ounces of Echinacea root in a glass jar full of one pint of pure grain alcohol or brandy (I use vodka). Cap the jar, and place on a window sill in the sun. Shake the jar once or twice a day for one week. Strain and store in a dark place or in a colored glass bottle. Either take a few drops at a time, a few times a day, or drink watered down, one tablespoon tincture to one cup water. If the root digging and cleaning process seems daunting, you can use the stalk, leaves or stem instead and simply dry them in a paper bag, like with the tea.

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