This section is from the book "Botanic Drugs Their Materia Medica, Pharmacology and Therapeutics", by Thomas S. Blair. Also available from Amazon: Botanic Drugs, Their Materia Medica, Pharmacology and Therapeutics.
Black Samson, Cone-Flower, Echinacea angusti-folia. Not official. It is stated that much of the root of this plant upon the market is grown east of the Mississippi and is of little value, the best quality coming from the prairie lands of Nebraska. J. U. Lloyd believes the active agent in echinacea to be "an acid organic body of a resinous character, nearly, if not quite colorless, and possessing, in an exalted degree, the persistently acrid qualities of echinacea - so intensely that it is distressing to the taste, even in very small amount, when pure. The stinging sensation affects the tip of the tongue for hours. But small quantities of it are present, even in the best root - less than 1/2 to 1 per cent."
After numerous trials, I succeeded in separating from echinacea a body I believe to be a stearoptene or camphor; but it was in considerably less than 1/2 per cent. It was a semi-solid at ordinary temperatures. Under the microscope, on a warm stage, it contained, after some evaporation, needle-like crystals. I was unable to crystallize these out in a pure state, as they broke down. Doubtless this is the agent isolated by Prof. Lloyd.
That it is a stearoptene, I may not positively state: that its anesthetic effects are as described by Prof. Lloyd, I know. Also I know that small quantities of it preserve urine from decomposition for 3 or 4 days, after which interval it loses effect. The action of this body was similar to that of thymol, only more intense. It is antifermentative, antiseptic, and a local anesthetic. A persistent acrid sensation in the fauces follows ingestion; the stomach feels warmed and more or less irritated, and I noted some depression.
My findings lack confirmation from other sources; and their confirmation by any other will require care and patience, since conditions must be just right to demonstrate the presence of these crystals. Whether they really are of any importance I am not prepared to say.
Competent pharmacologists declare echinacea to be nearly inert. A possible hypothesis is that it may have a secondary action, like colchicum.
Dr. V. von Unruh (Nat'I. Eclectic M. A. Quar., Sept., 1915) reported that the subdermal injection of echinacea increases the phagocytic power of the leucocytes, effecting a shift to the right and normal in the neutrophiles ("Arneth count") where a shift to the left had previously been obtained. He bases this statement on the findings in ninety-eight cases of tuberculosis. His article is interesting, but his findings lack confirmation from other sources.
His statement of the physiological action of echinacea is as follows: "Echinacea produces a feeling of intoxication, flashes of heat, headaches of a dull character, dull muscular pains, subnormal pulse, cold and numb extremities, and increase in the specific gravity of the urine. All these symptoms pass off gradually by themselves within several hours, showing that the drug has no continuing toxic or detrimental effects."
It may be remarked, in passing, that recent works on pharmacology assign nearly parallel effects on the injection of stearoptenes - phor, menthol, thymol, and borneol - ecially writings of Selig-mann, Fromm, Winterberg, Gottlieb, Pellacani, and Klemperer; but I can find no references in the literature to any phagocytic power from them except that Bintz asserts that they produce leuco-cytosis, menthol being an exception.
But it is well known that the stearoptene-bearing aromatic bodies pharmacologically act as does ter-pene, q. v. under "Abies," and Pohl says it causes a polymorphonuclear leucocytosis because, being positively chemotactic, it tends to prevent the escape of the white cell from the blood-stream. Cinnamic acid, according to Henderson, increases the number of leucocytes in the blood-stream. Cushing ascribes the same action to benzoic acid. Winternitz claims of the balsamic urinary stimulants that they decrease the number of leucocytes in an inflammatory exudate, prior to their excretion.
So, then, even if Dr. Unruh may make some extreme claims - ch I believe he does - may not dismiss his report as having no scientific foundation; and it must be conceded that the terpenes and stearoptenes have activities along the lines he indicates for echinacea. If echinacea really does carry an active stearoptene, it may not be dismissed as inert therapeutically. He says of its therapeutic action:
"The drug is found to produce direct stimulation of the katabolic processes, increase in the flow of saliva, sweat and urine, increase in glandular activity. It thus antagonizes all septic processes, facilitates the elimination of toxins from the organism, and lastly, it has a destructive effect upon the streptococci, staphylococci, and other pyogenic organisms."