language of flowers…..Echinacea

photo – l. fowler

In the language of flowers, the purple coneflower denotes skill and resilience – strength and health

Echinacea has a long history in folklore, medicine, and tradition. A symbol of strength and healing, it is also associated with spirituality, and has been connected with the shadow side of one’s’ nature and is frequently used in witchcraft to enhance the power of any “spell” that was cast and is used as an aphrodisiac tea and potion. It is believed that carrying this flower will strengthen your spirit in turbulent times. The color ‘purple’ is claimed to boost magical powers, exorcism, and healing in the world of magic.

Echinacea purpurea is a member of the Composite family (daisy or Asteraceae) and the generic name comes from the Greek word echinos for hedgehog in reference to the spiky projections in the center of the flower in its seed stage. Coneflowers are hardy for temperate gardens, drought resistant, easy to grow as a cutting flower or for boarders, and can be propagated by seed and division. The inflorescences remain open and colorful until they are pollinated, and then they fade and dry up without falling off. In addition to its ornamental appeal, echinacea attracts wildlife into the garden. The long lasting flowers are nectar sources for many flying insects including native bees, wasps, and butterflies. Additionally, the flowers serve as winter seed sources for many bird species. Somewhat a misnomer that the Echinacea purpurea, like its common name (purple coneflower), has purple flowers! Echinacea paradoxa has yellow flowers, and the modern echinacea hybrids display a rainbow of colors.

versatile native

A native wildflower of North America, the Echinacea purpurea, is known to American Indian tribes – mohk ta was used for sore mouth and gums by the Cheyenne, ichahpe-hu or chahpe-hu for inflammation by the Dakota, shika’wi as a cure for cramps and fits by the Meskwaki (Fox tribes), mika-hi as an eye-wash by the Omaha-Ponca, and the Ute associated the coneflower with elk, calling it elk root and it was believed that wounded elk would seek the blossom out as a medicine. Coneflower roots were used as a traditional healing herb by many of the Great Plains and Midwestern tribes to treat pain, burns, and inflammation, and the the coneflower was chewed as a ritual for sweat lodge ceremonies.

Sacred Life Medicine to the Navajo
Plants are an integral part of the Navajo, especially to the Medicine man (holder of truth about the Navajo way of life) – and whether used as a ceremonial object or a medicinal, each plant has a unique significance with some meanings lost in obscurity or not readily divulged by practitioners. The medicine man attributes meaning to almost every plant and their use is an expression of inner thoughts and feelings, and with accompanying rituals, passes this on from generation to the next – in the same fashion other cultures use written word to express innermost thoughts.

The many medicinal applications of this plant were chronicled by trappers and traders, European immigrants, and explorers in the forests of southeastern US in the 17th century and was sent to England in 1699 by the natural historian Reverend John Banister who had been sent to Virginia to study American fauna and flora. Chewed leaves, poultices, and teas made from the petals, leaves and roots were used and extolled as a painkiller and treatment for wounds, infection, inflammation, snakebite, and rabies. In 1805, Lewis and Clark sent seeds and roots to the President, Thomas jefferson. This is significant because only plants of the highest economic or scientific value received this treatment.

Between 1830 and 1930, a group of doctors who in their practices depended on botanicals, Eclectic physicians, popularized echinacea extolling its virtues until it became the Eclectics’ most widely used herb. With schools and practitioners in every part of the United States and also gained recognition in Germany.

Around 1887, H.C.F. Meyer, a German lay physician, learned of the benefits of Echinacea and began making and selling “Meyers Blood Purifier”, a patent medicine containing Echinacea, Hops, and Wormwood. He believed so strongly in the healing properties of Echinacea, that he sent samples of his product to two prominent physicians of the time: Dr. John Uri Lloyd and Dr. John King. To prove and promote his claims for the product and properties of the herb, Meyer offered to let himself be bitten by a rattlesnake in the presence of doctors and to treat himself only with Echinacea. The doctors declined his offer, surmising that he was a quack.

Although he did not opt for the rattlesnake offer, Dr. King was persuaded to give Echinacea a try and was soon convinced of the herb’s healing properties and proclaiming its usefulness in the treatment of many infectious diseases and illness of the times including meningitis, scarlet fever, chicken pox, and diphtheria. With this endorsement came credibility and Meyers and his “Snake Oil” were into action as a medical treatment.

Legend tells that Meyers with his carnival act and wagon went from town to town claiming that his Echinacea product was a secret remedy given to him by the Plains Indian, and to the amazements of his mesmerized audience would bring out a rattlesnake and let it strike him (defanged, of course!) and then rub his product on the bite as proof…Sales were great!

However, in 1910, the AMA (American Medical Association) declared Echinacea a “useless quack remedy” and it fell out of favor among Americans by 1930’s. With so much written about the herb over a 50 year period, it is astonishing that after 1937 there is not one mention of it in the US medical pharmaceutical literature, and considering the usefulness of Echinacea today, it is fortunate that interest did not disappear completely – it simply moved to Germany!

In the 1950’s, Alfred Vogel, Swiss naturopathic doctor, came to the US to study E. angustifolia and inadvertently took back the seeds of E. purpurea to study. It is ironic that the plant that was used through history by indigenous people of the US, E. augustifoila, was not the species the Germans ended up researching and therefore the one that became so popular was not the species with the medicinal history.

Today one of the main uses for Echinacea is to support a healthy immune function with some uses related to topical applications. Widely a dietary supplement in health food stores although it continues to be the subject of numerous scientific studies. We are still smitten with local star – our native herb – so much so that it has become the #1 selling herb in the US medicinal herb market.

Due to the growing wild harvest market of medicinal plants, several species of Echinacea are misidentified and lumped in with E. angustifolia and disturbed. Despite large herbal farms that grow echinacea, professional wild harvesters indiscriminately harvest on public and private lands – 200,000 pounds of echinacea root are harvested every year from the wild, faster than the species can regenerate. Native species are declining in the wild due to over harvesting, loss of habitat, and colonization. The species requires the presence of frequent wildfires and large grazing mammals to maintain the open habitat. Industrial development, intensive livestock grazing, and off-road vehicle use are major sources of habitat destruction.

As it is with pollinator habitat conservation, many man-made sites such as park and recreation areas and highway right-of-ways could support echinacea, but are often treated with herbicides or cleared.

“Present-day ecological concerns must temper our rush to obtain certain species, especially those threatened by over-zealous collectors. The prairie coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia), for example, has a long history of medicinal use by Native Indians but now our modern-day infatuation with herbal remedies has led to its near devastation by widespread digging of wild plants.” – Peggy Cornett
Director, Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, The Horticultural potential of Lewis and Clark Plants January 2003
Nine species are native to the United States and Canada, with heavy concentration in Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. These species mostly prefer rocky, disturbed soils in open fields, prairies and along railroad tracks. The material found in commerce is generally E. purpurea, E. angustifolia and occasionally E. pallida. 


The eclectic dispensatory of the United States of America.
By John King and Robert S. Newton 1852

One Hundred Years of Echinacea angustifolia Harvest in the Smoky Hills of Kansas, USA Dana M. Price and Kelly KindscherEconomic BotanyVol. 61, No. 1 (Spring, 2007), pp. 86-95 Published By: Springe

The Conservation Status of Echinacea Species –

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