Coneflowers are native to North America and include nine species. E. purpurea, which is one of the the three purple species of coneflower, is the one commonly referred to as echinacea and is most commonly used for medicinal purposes.
Every part of the plant has been used medicinally. Echinacea has been used medicinally for hundreds of years and it has been used to treat a vast array of medical conditions, from snake bites to cancer. The plant contains six main medicinal components: polysaccharides, flavonoids, caffeic acid, essential oils, polyacetylenes and alkylamides. Some of these components are found in specific parts of the plant while others are found equally throughout.
The above-ground portion of echinacea is packed with polysaccharides. Some of the polysaccharides found in echinacea stimulate the immune system and provide mild anti-inflammatory effects by surrounding tissue cells. This action protects the cells from bacterial and pathogenic invasion. Some of echinacea’s polysaccharides also promote tissue regeneration.
The root portion of another of the purple coneflowers, E. angustifolia, contains high levels of inulin, which enhances white blood cell movement into areas of infection. This movement increase immune complexes and destroy bacteria and viruses. Echinacoside, a caffeic acid derivative that accumulates mainly in the roots, may possibly be as effective as penicillin in killing viruses and fungi. Alkylamides, found in high concentrations in the roots, have mild anesthetic properties.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, as of 2010 there have been no studies, that have not been debated, that conclusively prove that echinacea prevents the common cold or shortens the duration. Regardless of study results, many people find that drinking echinacea tea does help their cold symptoms. The purple coneflower can be dried or used fresh to make an echinacea tea, the roots and leaves can be used as well.