Coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) were one of the first medicinal plants to find me. As a child, I remember being drawn to their showy, mostly purple flowers. My hands would pet their heads and glide across the petals. In high school, I worked in a plant nursery and noticed how little care they needed to thrive. When I started learning about herbal medicine, they reappeared again in the form of supplements that warded off colds and flu. I planted them in my garden and watched them burst from the cold Minnesota ground every spring, and was always somewhat surprised to see their blooms only a handful of months later. For a while, I was under the impression that only the root was used for medicine. Then I found out that the aerial parts could also be used and I fell in love with the tea, which seemed to boost my energy and give me that now-familiar tingling sensation on the tongue.
The name Echinacea comes from the Greek word echinos, which means hedgehog, inspired by the small spikes coming from the centre of the flower. Echinacea has been widely used by indigenous communities, particularly in the North American Plains. The Dakota regularly used it for inflammation. The Kiowa used it for sore throats and colds. The Comanche and Cheyenne both focused on its benefits to the mouth, helping with toothaches and sore gums, among other things. During the 19th century, the Eclectics, particularly John Uri Lloyd and John King, brought Echinacea to mainstream Euro-American medicine. They viewed the plant as having numerous benefits, from being a remedy for snakebites to providing relief from syphilis symptoms. A fair amount of their initial knowledge came from indigenous sources, though acknowledgement of this has been spotty at best. Ultimately, their research made Echinacea one of the most popular U.S. herbal remedies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Today, Echinacea is again a popular herbal remedy. Its strong, upright stems and flower heads are commonly found in both gardens and the open prairies. Two species in particular are used for their medicinal properties: E. purpurea and E. angustifolia. Coneflowers are not only beautiful to look at, but powerful healers as well.
Photo by Nathan Thompson – all rights reserved