E is for Echinacea

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

According to a report by consumer adviser Dr. Wallace Sampson, a Swiss herbal supplement maker was “erroneously told” many Native Americans in the South Dakota area used Echinacea for cold prevention. Thus began a craze in alternative treatment. Extract tinctures, and juices are made from the drought-tolerant, perennial, herbaceous plant. By the beginning of the 20th Century, the plant became one of the most popular herbal remedies in America. The medical community, however, points to a lack of controlled trials of the resultant product and warns against its use. Despite these concerns, many people continue to tout the medicinal virtues of the Echinacea.

Some Native American tribes did and do, indeed, use Echinacea for specific symptoms. The Cheyenne and Kiowa treated sore throats with the plant, and the Pawnee and Lakota use it as a pain medication. Prairie folk medicine used Echinacea Purpurea as a help for cold symptoms, as well.

Known as a prolific gardener, Emily Dickenson mentions purple coneflower in her herbal notes, and poet Alice Wilde’s poem “Echinacea – My Mother’s Garden” says, “…I am all to myself. Alone. At home under their stems…”

Echinacea is a member of the daisy family, and nine species and over sixty varieties of these “purple coneflowers” exist in eastern and central North America. Their name derives either from the Greek word for “hedgehog” or the Latin for “sea urchin” because of the appearance of the spiny center of the Echinacea’s large flower head. Plants can reach four feet in height, and they can secrete a chemical which prevents competing plants from growing.

Two species, the Echinacea Tennessensis and the Echinacea Laevigata appear on the US Endangered Species list.