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A botanical and medicinal history of Echinacea, a native plant of the Southeast

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In Native American culture, the purple coneflower was used to treat poisonous bites and stings, toothaches, reduce inflammation, sore throat, colds, and so much more. In a way, this botanical miracle was used as a cure-all and was used to treat ailments more than any other medicinal plant.

The purple coneflower, also known scientifically as Echinacea purpurea, is a plant native to prairies in the eastern United States. They are part of the Aster family, which also contains sunflowers, daisies, dahlias, and chrysanthemums. These flowers are well known to gardeners because they add beautiful color splotches to any yard or garden space and are a vital component of pollinator gardens. It is a vibrant purple composite flower, meaning that it is made up of both ray flowers (the bright colored petals that bees and butterflies are attracted to) and disk flowers (the little flowers that make up the head of the plant). Insects will seek out the irresistible color of the ray flowers and then take nectar from them in exchange for giving pollen to the flower. 

Image credit: The three B’s – Complex Flowers (britishbotanicalartists.com).
The ray flowers (florets) and the disc flowers (florets) are also labeled.

Much of the knowledge surrounding the purple coneflower has been passed down through generations of native peoples. Their knowledge was then obtained by the settlers of the Americas. Now, this species of coneflower is heavily studied by both hobbyists and the ethnobotanical community.  A simple definition of ethnobotany is that it is the combination of “ethno” meaning culture, and “botany” meaning plants. This realm of botany studies how people of a particular culture have used or continue to use native plants. Said differently, ethnobotany is the study of how plants and people intermingle.  Some ethnobotanical uses of plants outside of Echinacea purpurea include medicine, clothing, housing structures, and soaps. For example, the hemp plant can be used to make cloth and cosmetics, while calendula flowers can be used as a salve and made into tea. Indigenous people have had a deep connection with plants through their culture and have passed down this knowledge and culture to many generations. However, while much of the field of botany is closely tied to native peoples, botanical history is mostly taken up by white (caucasian) men. 

Image credit: File:WitteHeinrichFlora1868-012-Echinacea purpurea.png – Wikimedia Commons. A botanical illustration displaying the leaf shape and capitulum head of Echinacea purpurea

Indigenous people were one of the first civilizations to begin to use plants in their regular routines. The adoption of the purple coneflower by the white man did not happen quickly, but boy did it happen thoroughly. Moving up the time frame to when Echinacea was beginning to be built into modern medicine, it was first adopted as a way to increase patent medicine sales and labeled as “Meyer’s Blood Purifyer”. Throughout history, there was increased hesitancy of medicine and medicinal practices when they originated from native peoples and peoples of African descent. Throughout history, it has been the case that when medicinal substances are patented and sold by people of caucasian descent, these substances are more eagerly consumed. This is ironic due to the fact that the medical industry is based on the knowledge that originates from native and black bodies, culturally and physically. There needs to be a conservation of knowledge from these peoples; however, nothing can be preserved if there is nothing or no one there to preserve it. 

Image credit: File:Echinacea purpurea 002.JPG – Wikimedia Commons. An image displaying the capitulum head of Echinacea.

From the knowledge of indigenous peoples, we were able to transcend into modern medicine. Today, we now know that Echinacea is believed to have active substances that can heighten immunity, relieve pain and inflammation, and have hormonal, antiviral, and antioxidant properties. Some recent studies also suggest that compounds in Echinacea can be used to combat the herpes simplex virus (HSVI) . Since Echinacea is a prominent herb in the medicinal and homeopathic world, many forms of the plant are available to consumers including pills, tinctures, oils, balms, tea, and dried leaves.  While the purple coneflower is very accessible through avenues such as pills, teas, and dried plant matter, this accessibility also brings some negative consequences. Individuals and/or companies may poach these plants and illegally harvest them or companies may overharvest, leading to smaller populations in the future for personal profit or overexploitation. To make matters worse, prairie habitats are also declining drastically compared to populations that existed decades ago. Prairies are actually one of the most endangered plant ecosystems, making the prevalence of Echinacea falter as well. 

While it is important to preserve ecosystems and the plants within them, it is also important to preserve indigenous culture. In the U.S., there has been an erasure of indigenous culture that many individuals are not aware of. Native peoples have built and maintained the botany and forestry of the United States and continue to be the origin story of the land that we are currently walking on. Echinacea purpurea, i.e. the purple coneflower, was and is a staple in their sphere, similar to how it is in ours today. They have cultivated this plant, learned its medicinal properties, and implemented its use leading to the knowledge we know and use today. When you look around in your area, please remember to take a second to understand that there is a story behind each native plant that is tied to indigenous knowledge. It is also important that when you continue to wander and botanize around your area, learn and appreciate whose land you are actually on. Native peoples did not give up their culture and ethnobotanical knowledge because they wanted to, but because uninformed and hostility-minded individuals took it from them. While coneflowers are present today due to conservation initiatives, the knowledge surrounding the purple coneflower, i.e. Echinacea purpurea, is only with us today because of the conservation of indigenous culture. 

Featured image credit: “Echinacea in a Grouping” by CME FISH is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0mons

About the Author

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Chazz Jordan is a Ph.D. student in the department of Plant Biology at UGA. She studies coneflowers and how their physical traits, genes, and pollinator interactions have evolved over time. By looking at their evolution, she hopes to evaluate how they will endure over time in the era of climate change. When she’s not hunched over her coneflowers, she’s probably collecting houseplants, watching nostalgic childhood movies, or aimlessly wandering the forest looking for weird fungi and plants.

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