Echinacea purpurea, a plant originally used by native Americans to treat respiratory infections, was evaluated for its ability to stimulate the production of cytokines by normal human peripheral blood macrophages in vitro. Commercial preparations of echinacea fresh pressed juice and dried juice were tested at concentrations ranging from 10 micrograms/ml to 0.012 microgram/ml and compared to endotoxin stimulated and unstimulated controls. Cytokine production was measured by ELISA after 18 h of incubation for IL-1 and 36 and 72 h for TNF-alpha, IL-6, and IL-10. Macrophages cultured in concentrations of echinacea as low as 0.012 microgram/ml produced significantly higher levels of IL-1, TNF-alpha, IL-6 and IL-10 (P < 0.05) than unstimulated cells. The high levels of IL-1, TNF-alpha, and IL-10 induced by very low levels of echinacea are consistent with an immune activated antiviral effect. Echinacea induced lower levels of IL-6 in comparison to the other cytokines measured. These results demonstrate the immune stimulatory ability of the unpurified fresh pressed juice of Echinacea purpurea and offer some insight into the nature of the resulting immune response as compared to endotoxin.