3 Herb Mamas

Herbal Medicine Making: ECHINACEA HARVEST


Echinacea purpurea

As the nights turn chilly and the mornings frosty, I know that it is time to turn my thoughts to harvesting medicinal roots before the ground freezes solid. Chief among my autumn digs is Echinacea, a flower much beloved by the winged pollinators during the summer. Although I often make whole plant tincture by steeping each plant part in turn, starting with leaves in spring, flowers in summer, and roots in fall, I have found the roots to be the most active. Since I have also found fresh root tincture of Echinacea to be much more active than dried (Huge understatement!) I always use freshly dug and scrubbed roots.

Native Americans used Echinacea for a variety of health needs but its use today is nearly synonymous with immune system support. Unlike pharmaceutical antibiotics, Echinacea stimulates and strengthens our immune system to better defend against viruses and infections. Our family likes to use it both preventively as well as during active infections.

Echinacea root harvest

Quite a harvest of Echinacea ready for trimming off the small feeder roots and stems, scrubbing, and chopping.

Echinacea roots

Echinacea roots after an initial washing. They still need more feeder roots removed and a more thorough scrubbing.

Range of Echinacea root sizes

Top to bottom these are all harvestable Echinacea roots. The top one is an average sized root, the middle and above-average, and the bottom is what I generally refer to as a “Grandmother” which is conglomerate of third-, second-, and first-year roots along with some tiny buds that would have grown into new plants next year. These roots are often near and growing under large rocks and the alkaloids are very active and potent.

Small Echinacea root

An average sized Echinacea root with feeder roots removed and scrubbed up.

Sliced Echinacea root

Sliced Echinacea root. I consider tasting each Echinacea harvest to be an essential step. I learn so much about how the growth season affects the vigor and vitality of that year’s crop, the differences between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd year roots, the most active parts of the plant. Chewing a slice of fresh Echinacea root is an experience not to be missed. The polysaccharides lend a subtle sweetness and the alkaloids leave my tongue and lips “buzzing”. 

Older hollow Echinacea root

In the third or fourth year Echinacea roots will become hollowed out in the center. Although the remaining root parts are still somewhat active the “daughters” and “granddaughters” that come after and around these hollow roots are often more potent. Clumps of mature roots often remind me of little villages and I like to read the “stories” of their history through the arrangement of the root crowns and sprouts.

Fresh Echinacea Tincture 2014

Fresh Echinacea root tincture 2014. I won’t go into all the details about water to alcohol ratios for optimum extraction of both water-soluble and alcohol-soluble components but if you are interested I would highly recommend Richo Cech’s (of Horizon Herbs) book MAKING PLANT MEDICINE. This is a very large batch of Echinacea tincture because I was cleaning out an old garden bed of all its plants in preparation for starting a fragrant Rose bed next spring. I will also need to start more Echinacea from seed this winter and begin a new bed, which means it will be three years before the next harvest. Good thing tinctures are fine for 10 years or longer.

One of my quirks in life is that I have a need to understand the true cost and value of things I use in every day life, as opposed to simply the current market rate for them. Growing Echinacea from seed to harvest, with all of the attendant care-taking and work involved, is part of the wholeness of its healing magic for me. This plant is easy to grow, a blessing to watch (especially when the butterflies are feeding on it), and an essential component of my herbal medicine chest. Maybe $10 for a tiny tincture bottle seems high in the glare of florescent-lit pharmacies, but waiting 3 years to harvest leaves me feeling like that is an amazing bargain…although it won’t hold a candle to what comes from my own garden at any price.

Echinacea tincture with inulin

A previous year’s Echinacea tincture with inulin settled to the bottom. When I strain the plant material out I try to include as much of this inulin as possible. Research indicates that naturally occurring inulin increases absorption of minerals like calcium and magnesium, benefits the immune system by enhancing the growth and activity of beneficial gut flora and inhibiting the growth of certain pathogenic bacteria, decreases cholesterol and triglycerides, improves kidney function (rehydration and re-mineralization), blood sugar regulation, and more. You won’t find the inulin in commercially available tinctures but you can grow it easily in your garden and make your own. I always shake up my tincture bottle before using in order to redistribute this water-soluble component. 

Dig deep for healing! ~Leenie

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