Echinacea species comparison

by Paul Bergner

Medical Herbalism 10-31-95 7(3): 16

Recent research in Germany has compared the immune-stimulating power of three echinacea species (E. Angustifolia, E. purpurea, and E. pallida) in a variety of lab dish studies. In what will be a surprise to many herbalists, E. purpurea was found to be stronger in most of the tests — surprising because the Eclectics stated in no uncertain terms that the angustifolia species was much more effective clinically.

The German researchers prepared tinctures in 30% alcohol and macerated them for ten days. They then tested the biological activity in a number of immunological and virological tests (in vitro). All extracts had activity on the tests, but E. purpurea showed by far the strongest response. E. Pallida was the strongest in one test. Chromatography studies showed that the purpurea had a mix of constituents different from the other species. This trial will probably be used by herbal companies to claim that they have the “best” echinacea, but there is reason for pause before throwing away your E. angustifolia. Note that purpurea, which is easier to grow, is less expensive, and market pressures may also incline companies to use purpurea, or to use more of it in mixtures of the three species. Some problems with the trial:

- The trial was only in the laboratory, and not done in a clinical situation with human subjects. Results in the lab may not have relevance in the real world.

- The trial used only 30% alcohol to make the tinctures. This may have reduced active alcohol-soluble constituents present in normal tinctures, which use higher amounts of alcohol. For instance, as quoted by Felter: “According to Professor Lloyd, who has made a complete pharmaceutical study of this drug [E. angustifolia] extending over a period of thirteen years (since 1885), the best menstruum for the preparation of either the fluid extract or common tincture of echinacea is a mixture of alcohol four parts and water one part.” This is the preparation that the Eclectics used to treat serious infection and potentially fatal diseases such as tetanus with such clinical success. Note that the purpurea product with much clinical research in Germany is not a tincture, but the pressed juice of the whole flowering purpurea plant, stabilized with low (20%) alcohol.

- The trial did not indicate the source of plant material. Farm varieties may not have potency of wildcrafted varieties growing in their natural habitat. This may be especially true of E. angustifolia, which is difficult to grow outside in normal habitat.

Eclectics preferred angustifolia

Eclectics considered E. angustifolia and E. purpurea to be different plants with different properties, and did not use them interchangeably. Professor John King, for instance, compared the action of E. Purpurea to that of stillingia. Ellingwood states “There is considerable confusion concerning the identity of the active medicinal species of echinacea. The E. purpurea of the Eastern states has been thought to be identical with the E. angustifolia of the Western states. It is often used for the same purposes, but is universally disappointing.”

Richard Farr of Hawthorne, California, in a recent letter to the Townsend Letter for Doctors, makes the point that when the Eclectics used echinacea for serious illnesses, such as tetanus, anthrax, hydrophobia, diphtheria, and meningitis, they invariably used E. angustifolia, and used it in massive doses, as high as a half ounce (!) every two hours. Farr points out that this may have relevance in the treatment of AIDS).


The German trial cannot be used to imply that E. purpurea is superior clinically to E. angustifolia. Further in-vitro trials comparing 80% alcohol tinctures, or an 80% angustifolia tincture with a 30% purpurea tincture, might be useful. When the trial is balanced with the Eclectic clinical observations, there no indication to throw our E. angustifolia away. At best we might prefer the high quality products that mix all three echinacea species in a tincture. It is entirely possible that although we find E. purpurea may help with a cold or flu (its most common use in contemporary herbalism) it may be nowhere as effective as a properly prepared (80% alcohol) angustifolia tincture for truly serious infections. Personally, if I had rabies, tetanus, or anthrax, and had access to it, I’d take an 80% tincture of E. angustifolia, regardless of what the current German research shows.


Beuscher N, Bodinet C, Willigmann I, Satzgitter DE “Immonomudulierende Eigenschaften von Wurzelextrakten verschiedener Echinacea-Arten.” Zeitschrift für Phytotherapie 16, 157-166 (1995)

Ellingwood F. American Materia Medica, Therapeutics, and Pharmacognosy Eclectic medical Publications. Portland OR. Reprinted 1983.

Farr R. “Considerations regarding echinacea in serious illness” Townsend Letter for Doctors Issue # 147. October 1995.

Felter J and Lloyd J. King’s American Dispensatory Eclectic Medical Publications. Portland, OR. Reprinted 1984.
  Copyright 2001 Paul Bergner  

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