Where does Echinacea come from?

Echinacea, common name ‘Purple Coneflower’, is a flowering plant from the Sunflower family. The plant is endemic, or native, to the Great Plains region of the United States. This showy perennial grows up to 25 inches in height. It evolved to occupy the upland, dry and rocky regions of central United States, east of the Great Divide. The genus, for the most part, originated and dispersed along a region spanning from the Ozark Mountains in Missouri down to the Oklahoma grasslands (see map).

The natural range of the genus Echinacea in the US. Outer yellow area denotes entire range. Inner green area marks areas of high species richness.

The natural range of the genus Echinacea in the US. Outer yellow area denotes entire range. Inner green area marks areas of high species richness.

History of Echinacea

In the 17th century, when early American settlers arrived in the Great Plains region, they observed the Great Plains Native Americans treating flu, influenza, toothaches, sepsis and wounds with a concoction made from a purple, daisy-like flower. The use of echinacea was widespread among the Cheyenne, Dakota, Pawnee, Sioux and Chocktaw tribes. The American settlers quickly realized the varied health benefits of the ‘Purple Coneflower’. The plant was traded as a commodity throughout the US and was eventually shipped back to Europe on transatlantic crossings.

Upon arriving in Europe in the late 1890s, Echinacea quickly gained in popularity as a health supplement. Conrad  Moench, a German apothecary, coined the term ‘Echinacea’ for this medicinal plant. He noticed that the spiky central disk of the echinacea flower resembled a spiny sea urchin and he, therefore, based the flower’s name on the Greek word for sea urchin, ‘echino’.

echinacea for colds main page

In the last 100 years, scientists have published more than 800 journal articles on the chemistry, pharmacology, and clinical uses of Echinacea. The majority of these articles explore the effectiveness of this plant for the treatment of viral infections, bacterial infections and anti-inflammatory properties.

The main biologically active compounds of Echinacea are alkamides, polysaccharides, lipoproteins and phenolic compounds. The aerial portions of Echinacea contain the polysaccharides (large sugar chains) and lipoproteins (fatty proteins). These molecules can strengthen immune system activity and help ward off cold or flu infections. Conversely, the roots of echinacea are naturally rich in alkamides and phenolic compounds. Alkylamides are fatty acid amides, which are anti-inflammatory. Anti-inflammatory factors help reduce the severity of a cold or flu symptom. Phenolic compounds (caffeic acids) are aromatic organic compounds known to suppress free radicals and also support our immune system.

While much is known about the active compounds in this medicinal plant, the exact mechanism by which the plant suppresses a cold or flu remains elusive. Regardless, by the beginning of the 20th century, echinacea had become the most commonly used herbal supplement in the United States.
To learn more about the cultural history and biology of popular herbal supplements, please visit ethnoherbalist.com .

by Kevin Curran @ ethnoherbalist.com


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