Echinacea? What is it?

Echinacea purpurea - Purple ConeflowerWell, the health products you see in stores are made from a herb known as echinacea.

The echinacea plant is distinctive looking and grows in dry temperate climates. It is also referred to as coneflower because of its daisy-type flowers and a large cone-shaped stigma-system in the centre of the flower.

Echinacea plants are perennials and often reach heights of four feet or more. The plants do manage to grow in the gardens of the British Isles, but the damper climate does not always suit echinacea – because of this, many plants seldom reach beyond 2 feet.

By the way, it is pronounced (ekky naycier)



The origins of Echinacea

There are nine species of echinacea – all members of the Asteraceae family and native to the North American prairies, including Canada. Six of these are valued as ornamental plants. The remaining three are used to produce herbal remedies:

  • Echinacea purpurea  Purple Coneflower
  • Echinacea angustifolia Narrow leaf Coneflower 
  • Echinacea pallida Pale purple Coneflower

Echinacea plantEach of these three species produce slightly different herbal medicines because they contain slightly different amounts of plant substances.

Rudi Bauer, a German researcher in phytotherapy (the science of plant medicine), compared the action of these three species extracted by different methods. He concluded that Echinacea purpureaextracted in ethanol yielded the best results in stimulating the activity of macrophages – cells in the body which behave as the garbage collectors in our blood, gobbling up viruses and bacteria. 

Echinacea in the wild

Echinacea plants grow in the wild and are native to the prairies and wooded areas of central and eastern parts of North America. Its immense popularity in recent years has resulted in illegal ‘harvesting’ of the plant, and it has all but disappeared from many of the plains of North America.

The Lakota tribe of South Dakota had a tradition of never picking an Echinacea plant until they had seen another one. This was a simple way of ensuring sustainable wild harvesting.

Unfortunately, many people who collect Echinacea from the wild today do not belong to this age old thinking or tradition – illegal harvesters either don’t care or don’t know about sustainability.

They often cause damage the ground by uprooting Echinacea plants; nor do they realise that the health benefits of Echinacea are best if two or three year old plants are used – not any old plant you happen to come upon in the wild!

Illegal harvesting of Echinacea and other plants also affects the livelihood of people who live off the land and increases fears about the sustainability of the plant. Sustainability of herbs is a problem worldwide as plant medicine becomes more popular with people preferring to use, as the first step, a more natural form of medicine to treat minor health conditions – such as using echinacea for colds or flu.

Cultivating Echinacea

Alfred Vogel and Black ElkIt was Alfred Vogel, an eminent Swiss naturopath and herbalist, who first brought Echinacea seeds to Europe. These first plants were cultivated at his clinic in Teufen and later on organic farmland in nearby Roggwil.

Today, the herb gardens that Vogel started still thrive, providing a healthy supply of organically grown Echinacea plants which are used to produce some of the most popular Echinacea remedies in the world. All of this is done with Vogel’s legacy living on, and through a positive approach to sustainability:

  • Echinacea seeds used to produce new plants the following spring are collected from each echinacea harvest in the autumn
  • Plants are organically grown, untreated, with no chemicals used on the soil
  • The fields are enriched with organic compost
  • Rainwater is collected and used to irrigate the plants.

In contrast to wild colletion, the cultivation of echinacea plants ensures a sustainable supply of this popular medicinal herb and today, commercial cultivations may be found in North America, Canada, northern Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Unfortunately, there are no significant echinacea fields in the UK. The plants like full sun and it I because of this that it is rare in the UK to find echinacea plants successfully cultivated for medicinal products.