Echinacea: A Healing Plant

By Brenda Williams

Echinacea is a member of the botanical family asteraceae commonly known as asters. The genus is echinacea and there are several species but only three are used for medicinal purposes. These are: E. purpurea, E. angustifolia, and E. pallida.

The species can be distinguished from one another by the color of their flowers. Echinacea was originally used medicinally by the Native American tribes. The Lakotas referred to E. angustifolia as Icahpe hu. They used it to heal snake bits, sepsis and rabies. The Dakotas used echinacea for eye infections and also as veterinary medication for the horses. The Choctows and Cheyennes used it for coughs and colds while the Comanches treated sore throats with Echinacea and the Blackfoots used it for toothaches. Altogether echinacea is known to have been employed as medication by over 14 Native American tribes. It is possible that they used all of the species.

During the 1800's, H.C.F. Meyer made a commercial medicine from E. angustifolia. After learning of this, three physicians, Dr. Lloyd, Dr. John King and Dr. Meyer began to study the healing properties of the plant. The results of their studies led them to recommmend its usage. Ellingwood's 'American Materia Medica' listed it as a treatment for syphilis, typhus, diphtheria, chronic mastitis, and tuberculosis. It became highly popular in the United States and in the early twentieth century was a top selling drug. It remained so until the discovery of antibiotics such as penicillin. Americans discontinued its use when the American Medical Association labeled it worthless in the 1930's. However, people in Europe continued to be enthusiastic about echinacea. This was particularly true in Germany.

During the 1930's, a German physician, Dr. Gerhard Madaus, started to do extensive research on echinacea. He visited the United States to purchase seeds from chinacea Angustifolia which was the species used in medicine at that time. Unknowingly, he returned to Germany with seeds from Echinacea purpurea. He continued his studies and research and finally developed a product known as Echinacin. This is manufactured from the flowers, leaves and stems of the plant and is still available today. Echinacea is available as a tea, capsule or extract. It can also be harvested wild in some states. Other states have listed it as an endangered species.

Echinacea is easy to cultivate and thrives in sunny, dry environments. Echinacea boosts the immune system, and helps to prevent colds and flu. The recommended dosage is 300 to 500 mg. taken four to five times daily. While its main popularity has been as an immunity booster and cold fighter it is useful in fighting yeast infections. Echinacea is also available as a cream. And when used topically it provides relief for canker and cold sores. Echinacea is a controversial herbal remedy. Many research studies have been performed. Some have concluded that it has no benefit in boosting immunity or relieving cold symptoms. But studies in England and Europe have opposite results.

Regardless of what scientists say or don't say echinacea is one of the top selling herbs in the United States so it has a high following amongst the general public.