(Originally published here )
This plant is right up there with St.John'swort, in that together they take the top spots for the most misunderstood herbal medicines. And, to my mind, they're also the most bastardized, exploited and whored-out by Big Herb. But I digress, right in the first paragraph. Great start!
I've written and deleted and rewritten and redeleted today's post half a dozen times and there might well be a seventh as I try to find another way to write about my friend echinacea, or as I like to call her (or it, or them, which is it?), elk root. You've read all the propaganda. I have to go another way.
You've probably used echinacea, and you've likely also used it in a way that up until recently I would have called "wrong", ie for colds. I would have told you it doesn't work for colds. You would have argued that it does, and told me about all the times it made you feel better. I would have further argued, on the basis of semantics, that ok, you're sort of right and so am I, but ..
Actually, you're right.
It did work, just not in the way the advertisers and all the herbal sites say. It wasn't working on the virus but helping you with the bacterial aspect of your symptoms.
Here's where I think it gets interesting. This is the same debate as the one around antibiotics for colds and flu. Most M.D.s will now refuse to prescribe them because (cue authoritative voice) "they don't work on viruses". But many people swear by antibiotics for colds. The reason for this is that there is so often an underlying bacterial factor which remains mostly unacknowledged by your average health care provider. Patients know what makes them feel better. If docs and yes, many herbalists would pay more attention to what their patients are telling them, maybe we wouldn't be having this conversation. Some people are just plain prone to have a bacterial aspect with every cold they get.
Each person gets their own version of a cold, after all. It's not even about the virus, it's about the person feeling miserable. Right there is another of the tricky aspects of health care as we know it now. It's become all about treating the disease, not the person. That's backwards. In truly old fashioned herbal medicine, it was always about the person.
That's more difficult than it used to be, for a couple of reasons, but primarily because society forces the sick to go to strangers. We no longer live in villages where there are one or two talented grannies that we can go to when we're sick. More so, those talented grannies of the past were the second line of defense, first was your own granny (or mom or auntie). Families had their own remedies - for their own family's versions of common illnesses. In those days, you wouldn't go to a stranger and describe your symptoms. You'd have your granny hovering over you with something to nip your cold in the bud before the second sniffle.
When health care is done in the home, it's far more timely and more humane, too.
Up until now, I've only looked after the people around me with the plant medicines (and chicken soup). Now that I'm helping others, I'm realizing the challenges faced by clinical practitioners of all stripes. Not only is there far less reliable information to go on for a diagnoses and treatment but the progress of the illness is further along. That makes it much harder to treat the person.
The other challenge for me is, that with a lifetime of modern medical treatment under their belts, people seem to believe the reasons for their illness to be defined by their numbers. They want to give me test results - I just want to know how they feel. They want to tell me what they're already taking - what I want to know most is why they started taking it in the first place. It takes quite a while to get a bead on anyone.
I had a feeling it would be this way, and so with each one I have to explain what it is that I'm going to try to help them with. One commonality I see in most who aren't feeling well is that they almost project their discomfort outward, as though their "symptoms" are something separate from themselves.
Modern medicine is now all about managing symptoms. They don't like to talk about cures much any more. (Despite what the cancer clubs say in their slogans). I'm confused, actually, when herbalists get into the Great Debate. They accuse the MD's, who are managing the symptoms of a defined disease, of treating only the symptoms ... whereas we herbalists are looking for the cause.
Now that is true, we are, but when it comes to bumps and bruises and runny noses and tummy bugs, the causes are pretty obvious for the home healer. So the Great Debate is more relevant in clinical practice, where one is often treating virtual strangers - or in my case, trying to help people by email (what am I thinking?? Talk about working with one hand tied behind my back!)
So even the word 'symptom' has been recast. Now it's as likely to be expressed not something felt, but a number on a scale. Now, asking me to think strictly in terms of test results is pretty much akin to expecting me to understand a language without the verbs. I can get the gist but after a while we're going to get bogged down.
I can, and do, learn what I can about that language. I consider it more important for healing, though, to teach each person to speak that language with verbs. I'm trying to turn the process inside out, because that's where my aim is, the inside of the person.
I want to understand what's going on inside their heart, most of all.
I'm beginning to see (and pretty quickly, thank you God!) that I won't be able to help anything like the majority, but I'll be able to help those with already slightly open hearts. It's not my job to change the way people frame their reality, just to show them that it can be reframed. It's almost as though I'm just here to give permission - not that anyone should need it - to step away from the modern medical or even modern herbal paradigm into something that just feels better to them.
Plants speak. Their language, when seen from science's perspective, seems to be chemical. The plant chemicals speak to our body, give it "orders" which it reacts to with its own chemicals .. sort of. This part is partly true, and this part is how drugs work. So when science has forced a plant to behave as a drug, it cries "Eureka!" and we have what they call a standardized supplement. An inert chemical which has predictable effects within the body. Or at least on those test results. (Insert winking smiley face here.)
For lack of a better way to describe this, these standardized supplements are zombies. They have mobility but they have no consciousness, no soul.
Plants have consciousness and in a sense, soul. Not individual souls exactly, but within each of them is the soul of Creation.
You must understand that sometimes I'm forced to use words for concepts that are beyond words, yes?
I didn't really begin to understand echinacea, elk root, until I brought her into in my garden.
I bought and planted two potted 2 year olds in early summer, on the edge of a bed that was intended for garlic but was beginning to run with weeds. I was allowing that, garlic does quite well in a weedy bed, especially with dandelions. The garlic bulbs will be smaller than in a weeded bed, but the flavour is superior.
With the addition of the elk root, the weed colony changed. It diversified. This happens frequently; many seeds will lie dormant until something changes the soil bacteria or Ph - honestly, I don't know the science behind it, just the results. The elk root stimulated the soil of that bed in a way that now gave me some very useful medicinals. A yellow dock sprung up out of nowhere and so did a lot (a lot!) of mallows. That weed colony was healthy and all of it good medicine, but the elk root itself wasn't terribly happy that first year. They were stand-offish plants, too, not used to relating with humans on a personal level. For most of the summer, they didn't speak to me the way other plants do.
By autumn, they were ratty and I was worried. I knew they'd been raised in a hot house and wasn't sure they'd ever experienced a real winter. On a hunch, I transplanted some sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes) into the bed with them. When echinacea grew in the wild it would have grown with sunchokes, and I was hoping they'd "remember" their old friends and that their friends would help them get through winter.
The next few years that bed turned into one on of my most diverse and the elk root was the star. The sunchokes threatened to choke them (hence the name!) but the more pressure they put on the elk root, the taller and stronger it was and the more flowers it produced. It became happier, too, and began to not just speak, but sing out to me joyfully, sometimes calling me over to visit when I'm in another part of the garden. Elk root has a lot of "presence".
"They" will tell you that echinacea has "antimicrobial" properties. but growing in a mixed colony, or guild of plants, it seems to enhance the bacterial diversity of the soil. To me, this says that it isn't really anti- anything, but more pro-. I can't tell you that it has pro or even pre biotic qualities, that's not the sort of thing my garden teaches me. All I can tell you is that elk root enhanced the health of the soil and the surrounding plants.
Interestingly, but not at all surprisingly, these other plants were medicinals and I began to see that their medicinal effects in the body would be enhanced by the addition of elk root/echinacea. Not simply for the way it can help to clear an underlying bacterial infection, but because it seems to act as a catalyst, or support, depending on the circumstances.
I now use all parts of the plant. I'd long wondered why it was written that only the roots are medicinal, and decided to try the rest of the plant in my remedies. I've come to understand that the flowering tops and leaves have uses - but that their qualities are easily lost. I wouldn't recommend commercial preparations of flowers or leaves, but if home grown and home prepared they're lovely as a part of washes, tinctures or syrups. Freshly prepared, I find the above ground parts, (what we call the airy parts) of elk root soothing to the tissues (especially the mouth) and comforting to the spirit.
My plants are hybrids, not wild. I don't even know what kind they are, not purpurea, I don't think .. because they are hybrids I figured the chances of them reproducing by seed were slim, and they certainly haven't "self seeded". But two years ago in the late autumn, I took a few that had gone to seed and scattered the seeds around the bed, near the foot of the original plants. This past fall as I was digging dandelion roots I discovered several young plants that may well be elk root, although I can't say for sure until they get bigger and flower. I have a tendency to gather seeds of many things on my walks and then forget about them until, several walks later, my coat pockets are full of who-knows-what. I've emptied my pockets onto that bed several times, so the new plants may well be something else.
I hope they are the elk root, or just as nice, rudbeckia, a yellow cone flower cousin to elk root which we call brown-eyed Susans here. I brought in the seeds of the latter knowing that they would be old friends of elk root, and I want that bed to be as close to a natural guild as I can get it.
Excitingly, I've recently come across references that say rudbeckia and echinacea can be used interchangeably. I'm going to take that with a grain of salt, for I'm sure they have certain differences, but they may well have a synergy. I look forward to finding that out.
In my long winded, round about way, what I'm saying is that plant medicine is about far more than the standardized, inert powders in a capsule. All healing begins with creatures - those who need healing and those that can provide it.
In growing our own medicines we learn about the plants as individuals. In making the medicines for our loved ones we treat them as individuals as well. This is personalized medicine at its best.
It's also a great joy, not only to be able to help our loved ones feel better but to feel ourselves as part of Creation's intricate mysteries. We participate in that. We're meant to be a part of it. We use our intellects the way they were intended, as servants of our hearts.