Echinacea, Snake Root and Snake Oil

By Steven Martyn

I’ve come to have a good nose for sniffing out ‘the hidden goods’ of our past amongst the post-modern carnage that surrounds us. This gold was brushed aside, or covered up deliberately by twisting its appearance or meaning, hundreds or even thousands of years ago. It sits hidden in plain view collecting dust, until someone notices it, and brushes it off so the original lustre can come through. And then, like Aladdin’s lamp, when you rub the dust off and the lustre comes through, it grants you a wish. A magic carpet ride and views of endless riches in other worlds that are hidden under this world. So when I hear terms like ‘old wives tales’ or ‘folk’ knowledge in reference to traditional herbal knowledge, it has the opposite effect on me then was intended (which was to diminish traditional knowledge in the name of selling ‘what’s new’). It actually peaks my interest.

Recently I started thinking about ‘snake oil’ and I knew even before I started looking I’d found gold again. This term is seldom used these days but was still in common use when I was growing up. “Snake oil” basically means something is fake. My Grandmother, who was born in 1900, used it with regularity. She grew up with ’snake oil’ as the name of an actual product, a liniment, and lived through the takeover of naturally based medicines by pharmaceuticals. The pharmaceutical industry was born in the late 1800s and grew up in the early twentieth century. In the initial stage of this boom, many medicinal products were in fact just traditional medicines, such as herbs, that had been processed and packaged up into pills or liniments. So I wasn’t surprised to find snake oil is in fact a traditional North American and Chinese remedy. As the doctrine of signatures might suggest, rattlesnake works very well for poisoning, inflammation and arthritis. It was also reputed to be able to turn around an ornery ‘rattlesnake disposition.’

To make the medicine, First Nations people would catch rattlesnakes in the winter (when they were hibernating and had the highest fat content), cook them down in their own oil and maybe a small amount of bear fat if needed, strain it out and use it topically as a liniment for sore muscles and joints. I’ve eaten snake, and they are in fact very oily, so I can imagine how the cooking down part could work. But it’s nasty sticky stuff, so I can also imagine adding rendered bear fat, which on its own has healing and anti-inflammatory properties. Other accounts hold that the meat from the snake was dried and then decocted in mineral oil.

Mineral oil, which is petroleum based, was also used for decocting many herbs during this time period. As opposed to natural animal or plant-based fats, it doesn’t go bad and so would be seen as superior for industrial use where the product might sit on a shelf for years. Apparently, mineral oil also has some medicinal value, as does the crude oil it’s extracted from. Anyway, it’s quite easy to imagine as the commercial demand grew, that they’d run out of rattlesnakes fairly quickly and so alternately would come to use traditional anti-inflammatory herbs instead, such as Echinacea Angustifolia, which does everything snake oil was reputed to do and then some.

In the 1880s the first patent on a herbal snake oil was registered by a Dr. Meyer. It contained Echinacea, known then as ‘snake root’ and was sold as panacea; a cure-all. Having harvested bulk herbs to make commercial products for thirty years or so, it’s easy for me to see that as the product’s reputation and sales grew it would be difficult to keep up with the harvesting of these special plants. In the case of Echinacea not only is harvesting seasonally dependent, but only the older roots are traditionally harvested for medicine. In a flood of interest and income it seems inevitable that less scrupulous folk would generate look-alike products of lesser quality. There were no quality controls and so it’s likely in the fervor people would even sell just the mineral oil itself or the oil infused with more available but less effective herbs. Thus, “snake oil” came to have its modern meaning and connotation.

Meyer’s Echinacea label form 1885

But, we also have to consider this was a highly competitive time for this burgeoning industry and small organic producers who were doing the real thing were up against companies like Bayer and the big oil families in the US, which supplied the raw hydrocarbons they used to manufacture many pharmaceuticals. Given this, it’s easy to imagine how propaganda was generated by the corporations and circulated to cast aspersions, thus diminishing people’s view of traditional remedies effectiveness.

Strong associations were spawned through stories and advertising that associated the old time organic remedies with the backward (rural) lower class and the pharmaceuticals with sophisticated (urban) people of the modern upper class. The same propaganda, while more subtle, is still being used today to push disillusioned folks away from traditional practices and back toward pharmaceuticals. If you don’t believe me look at our Canadian health care system that we’re so proud of, that only covers pharmaceuticals and visits to MDs! This is an obvious sign that the corporate medical conspiracy is still alive and well. The stronghold of allopathic medicine actually started in the 1700s when the new ‘allopathic’ medicine aggressively took over from homeopathic and folk medicine in Europe. The largest difference in those days between these modalities, (before pharmaceuticals) which ultimately led to the generation of pharmaceuticals, was that allopathic medicines would use anything, including the pathogens themselves, to generate a healing effect. This debatable use of pathogens is the unacknowledged crux that lives at the heart of the modern day vaccination debate.

By the early 1900s, the medical hierarchy riding on the industrial revolution was well ensconced. So much so that they then started outlawing herbs that threatened the pharmaceutical and oil companies, such as Marijuana. During this time period they created one of the first propaganda movies, detailing the horrors of Marijuana use, called “refer madness.” They covered up the magic of that herb so well it’s only now, a hundred or so years later that we are relearning the prodigious medicinal applications of this plant.

Echinacea is one of my most special and frequently used herbs. Echinacea, also known as Cone flower, Snakeroot and Black Sampson, certainly doesn’t need my bolstering. It reached the height of public awareness a good thirty years ago as the go-to tincture for chest and head colds. The funny thing is that’s not it’s traditional used, nor does it work well for these ailments. I suspect back then, in those very anti-herbal and unregulated days, they decided it was the best label to slap on it for marketing. The truth is once a cold has gone into your head or lungs it’s too late to take Echinacea. It might even work against you at that point. If you really know your body and pay attention, then you can catch a cold or flu early with Echinacea. But it needs to be before it takes you down. You must hit hard when you have that first feeling or tickle in your throat. The dose is about 10 – 30 drops 3 x a day (depending on your size, sensitivity and the tincture potency). For the kids about 1/3 that amount. If it’s not working, once you’re well into the cold, you’re likely too late for Echinacea, so stop taking it. If it is making you better then you really just need to take it for a few days until you start to bounce back and then stop. Many people take a good dose of Echinacea as a preventive all winter but this is not a good idea. Among other reasons it becomes less effective the longer you take it. And it can even cause what it cures if taken excessively; exhaustion and mild flu-like symptoms. For immunity you’re better to do a mushroom combo or astragalus daily .

There are also many other effective cold and flu remedies that are not made from endangered plants, that do have long histories of traditional use for cold and flu such as Elderberry, Yarrow, Bee balm and Boneset. Alternately or as well, for colds that stick in the lungs and throat, I use common field plants like Mullein, Hyssop, Horehound, Coltsfoot and Elecampane. In my experience most of the evergreens, which are readily available in the winter for fresh harvesting, are also very able cold cures. A litre of hot evergreen tea, taken over one day, of Spruce, Hemlock, Tamarack, White Pine or Balsam fir will usually do it. Cedar can also work but you have to be careful about brewing it too strongly and or taking too much. With the evergreens add in some Yellow birch for flus with achiness and headaches.

For chronic inflammatory conditions like arthritis or autoimmune diseases, a smaller dose of Echinacea, like three drops can be taken longer term, usually combined with other herbs like Burdock, Alfalfa and Sweetfern. The leaves and stalk (in combo) can also be drunk as tea over a long term with no negative side effects. I don’t think technically Echinacea is toxic but I’ve always thought of it as mildly toxic or poisonous, like a snake. It’s medicine works like many other toxic plants, in that a small amount can elisit a strong healing reaction from our bodies. I say this to illustrate why, for long term use, Echinacea should only be taken in a drop dose.

As I have been privy to the workings of the “herbal industry” for a few decades I need to say a couple of words about commercial production of Echinacea. Unfortunately, it’s the same old story. What was once prolific and grew wild in many states is now an endangered plant. So, if you are buying Echinacea Angustifolia, make sure it’s organically grown and not wildcrafted.

There are many types of coneflower and to some degree I feel they are all medicinal but the Angustifolia is the panacea. It’s so powerful when prepared properly and can cure so many ailments it’s truly miraculous. Echinacea Purporea is the largest and most commonly grown of the coneflowers. This has taken over as the industrial standard for many reasons. The down side of this conveniently large variety is that it works medicinally at about a quarter the strength of Angustifolia. Essentially, it’s used most often because it’s much bigger, easier to grow and harvest. Angustifolia seeds, for example, take an eight week freeze-thaw cycle to germinate. Palidia seed also needs to be stratified. Palidia is also relatively small like Angustifolia but with a whitish flower. This extremely rare native species of Echinacea is what naturally grows here in Ontario where I live. It is also medicinal but not as strong as Angustifolia. I have grown this species but never had a chance to use it. I imagine each type of Echinacea has its own particular use, as related to the land where it’s from.

These are of course vast generalizations about different species. It’s always good to remember that plants, like people, are not static, not statistical. And yet that is how they’re studied and so it’s how most of us have come to speak of them. In reality they are unique living beings, each as different as we are. Their ancestors, where the plants are grown, as well as when and how they are harvested and dried, can change the potency of a plant dramatically.

Industrially, Echinacea is grown the wrong way. It is also harvested and dried the wrong way. It’s grown in fertile soil so the plant will get as big as it can in a short time. This is good for the farmer because they’re selling it by the pound. But medicinally speaking, the active ingredients in herbs are highest when there grown in a wild environment. Poor soil and harsh conditions, generally make herbs much more powerful than those grown in a richer environment. That is how herbs work; they’re there in part to heal and balance the soil. The farmer also harvests the plant in its second year when it’s flowering. This is also good for them because they get a flower, plant and root harvest, all of which can be sold. But the problem is that at this time of the season there is very little potency in the root. And while the plants have reached the maximum size by this age, their medicine is still very young. Echinacea, like most roots, gain potency with age. And just to be clear the farmers are not solely at fault for this mess. As usual, they are a casualty of the industry. Because the industry inevitably floods the market through massive mechanical production, so that growing something smaller and more slowly by hand, and growing it over four years, just isn’t economically viable. Especially if there isn’t a discerning clientele of herbalists, which there generally isn’t, though it is growing.

Echinacea should be harvested during a new moon in the fall of his forth year after a number of good hard frosts, and then air dried. As the plants get older than four, their potency may continue to grow but part of the root will also start to rot off each year. This makes the roots much slower to process because the dead matter needs to be carefully cut out of the hard roots by hand. Commercially, the roots are mechanically dried in a day and then ground up for economic efficiency (to take up less space). Once again to the detriment of the herb’s potency. Then, the ground up roots are stored until someone buys the herb to make a product or encapsulate it. Then it’s stored again, this time in the manufacturer’s warehouse, and then stored for as long as another year at room temperature in the light of the store or its back room before you buy it. Wrong wrong wrong, and yet this is the industry standard. If you buy Echinacea in any form, this is likely what’s happened to it. Unless you make you own, or buy it for what its really worth from someone that really knows what they’re doing, then you are part of this misuse. And like it wasn’t already hard enough to get the real stuff, now the government/industry has pretty much made it illegal to buy medicine of any kind from small producers. As is often the case these days the only way to really be sure what you’re getting is to grow, harvest and make it yourself. Or make and grow it with a friend or two and split the spoils.

It’s easy to make. All parts of the plant can be used, but the roots are the most potent, for which you must kill the plant to dig them up. In terms of both potency and traditional practices it is primarily the roots which are used. But the flowers are potent and next most often traditionally used. The leaves and stalks are used for tea, or grind them up and put them in your food in small amounts for inflammatory conditions. The flower and root are best tinctured, but can also be decocted. For these I use a high percentage of alcohol, at least 40% but ideally more like 80%. Remember the spirits are not just pulling alkaloids and other chemicals out of the roots, they also facilitate the transfer of the medicine into our body’s cells. It is also the most economical use of the precious plant material. Echinacea also goes a long way when used in oils (as a liniment) or in a salve. I use Echinacea as one of the central ingredients in all our salves and liniments for inflammation.

Many plants traditionally go by the name ‘snakeroot’. In fact I’d be willing to bet more plants are referred to as snake root than by any other single common name. Echinacea being one of those. Mostly these plants were named this, not because the roots look like snakes but because the plant (usually roots) could be poulticed and then used for snake bite. These roots tend to have anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. Some are also antiseptic and antibacterial. Often these roots have tannins or other drawing properties as well. Echinacea has all these qualities in spades.

As modern medicine is discovering more and more, and what the eclectic herbalists knew more then a century ago, is that most diseases and illnesses result from inflammation. Poor brain health, nervous system, circulation, joint health and even our guts and nutrient absorption are all related to inflammation. Inflammation is an autoimmune reaction, and so not surprisingly almost all autoimmune diseases are also related to inflammation. Half of curing Lyme Disease, for example, is just dealing with the inflammation. Our body’s cells become inflamed in an effort to isolate toxins. For infection this might work, which is how I suppose this response first evolved. But with many diseases such as Lyme, this inflammation is actually desirable and used by the pathogen to gain deeper inroads into the body. The cell membranes are weakened when stretched out. Parasites thrive in our bodies as the moon waxes every month because our cells hold more water during this time. This is why folks go ‘loony’ on a full moon, it’s parasite activity and inflammation of the brain.

Now you can begin to see the large range of uses for this strong old friend. Echinacea has been extensively written about and studied, so I won’t take up space giving you a litany of these uses but I will share my vision of, and some ways in which I’ve used this lovely, tough plant.

Echinacea is a bold, beautiful plant. We’ve all become used to it now, but it spread like wildfire as a garden plant about forty years ago in the 1980’s because of its big showy red-pink flowers that last for months. Its flower seems perfectly made for hummingbirds and bees alike. With a tall solid flowers made up of a domed area which is made of individual little flowers that’s surrounded by a ring of ridged ray-like petals that act as a deck for resting on between feasting bouts. But unlike most big showy flowers Echinacea is tough. Like a warrior, this plant thrives in the harshness of prairie fires, floods and drought. He is an Elder in the meadow community, as a long term perennial (lives more then 7 years). He usually grows with many other field plants including grasses as well as perennials and annual herbs. Echinacea embodies the exhausted, exposed, dry, hot conditions of his ideal environment (which you can taste in the root and seeds), so he works with problems that generate these conditions in the body. Another way of seeing this plant’s ‘medicine’ is that because of where Echinacea grows it’s suited to people who push very hard and burn out in the heat of their own relentless fire.

The way the plant grows shows me Echinacea corrects imbalances and deficiencies over time, particularly when working with other field herbs, including naturalized European species, such as St. John’s Wort, Clover, arnica (external or homeopathic), couch grass or sweet fern. I may add any of these or many others together with Echinacea depending on the ailment. The flowers have a reddish tint that cools or diminishes toward the edges of the petals. This is one of the primary medicine signatures for this plant, looking much like a septic or infected wound, or a hot irritated area. The flower heads are cone shaped and very hard, dense and bristly. This relates to Echinacea being very good for treating boils, acne and tumours. This hard, dense and bristly quality also speaks again to the personality of the plant and the type of people it can treat. The spiky flowers also conjure for me microscopic pollen allergens, for which Echinacea is useful in treating. The spiky cones slowly rises as a series of smaller flowers pop open in a spiral, each for a day or two, from the inside out. That slowly spiralling flower, moving from inside to out makes me think of how Echinacea works from the inside out. He can heal topically but not like calendula for example, he heals from the inside out through purifying the blood and lymph, and this takes some time.

Because of the ‘working from the inside” quality, Echinacea can also treat a range of conditions from extreme stagnation, as seen in Varicose veins and blood clots, through to septic and blood poisoning. He treats ailments where the ‘purple’ stagnation can be seen on the body. This is reflected in Echinacea’s purplish flower and the purple veins on the underside of their leaves. Medicinally, I think of Echinacea as being prime example of treating like with like.

The taste of the root or seed has a spicy bite to it. To me it has both cool and hot qualities. It’s also magically tingly and sweet. These stimuli speak of Echinacea’s ability to clean, build and stimulate flow where there is water or blood stagnation. As well as its ability to bring mild heat to where its cold, or alternately aid in cooling where there is heat. And Echinacea doesn’t just tighten the cell membrane like tannins do, it also increases the lymph flow and cleanses the blood.

I use Echinacea in small doses to treat chronic inflammatory conditions and exhaustion. I use this one topically and in fairly large doses (and most often in combination) not just for septic type infections but for almost any acute inflammatory condition, including bites, burns, bangs and old wounds that flare up. Taking Echinacea reminds me of how it felt when I was a kid hanging around with a tough friend or older cousin who made me feel tough too. They make you strong, but not in a gentle nurturing way, where you’re built up over time, like astragalus, alfalfa or clover might do for you. He builds you in a right now “there’s a snake” kinda way. This is why in larger doses it can work so quickly. But you can also see from this analogy why when you take too much it could exhaust you. And this brings us back to where we started with Echinacea as ‘snake medicine’.

May this ancient one always grace our gardens and grow wild in fields, bringing us joy with his beauty and holding the magical gift of healing for those times when we are in real need.