Mother Earth Living

Wiser Living

Finding a natural solution

Add to My MSN

The History of Echinacea, Part 1

2/8/2013 1:51:00 PM

Tags: Echinacea, Echinacea Purpurea, Echinacea Angustifolia, Echinacea Pallida, Native Americans, Herbal Remedies, Jennifer Heinzel

It was once stated by ethnobotanist Melvin Gilmore that echinacea—one of Native Americas’ most important herbal medicines—was used as a remedy for more ailments than any other plant.

Since its historical use, it has become the No. 1 plant in modern herbal clinics thanks to its versatility: It treats dozens of medical conditions in which weakened immunity or inflammation is a factor. There are nine main species, the three most common including Echinacea purpurea, E. angusitfolia and E. pallida. A couple of the lesser known species include E. paradoxa and E. atrorubens. The best known species, E. purpurea, was always the most favored species, as it was considered a sacred herb among the American Indians, and was greatly used to treat a number of women's health ailments.

Echinacea Tea 

What's In a Name?

This coneflower’s rich history starts with its name: echinacea. The name comes from the Greek word echonis (hedgehog), which refers to its spiny, rounded seed head—its botanical trademark. Echinacea’s other variety names originate from various Native American words and uses: wetop (widows’ comb), ashosikwimia ‘kuk (smells like a muskrat), and inshtogahte-hi (eye). Some of its English folk names, which settlers learned from the Native Americans, include Kansas snakeroot, narrow-leaved coneflower, scurvy root, Indian head and rattlesnake weed.

3 Common Echinacea Varieties

Echinacea is found throughout both cultivated and wild areas in Europe and North America, such as rocky prairies, wild fields and along roadsides. Each variety slightly differs in looks and use, but generally they embody the same features: they can grow anywhere from 1 to 4 feet tall with erect, simple or branched stems and simple leaves that are either oval or lance-shaped.

E. purpurea’s leaves have acutely pointed tips, coarse teeth and a fibrous root; E. pallida grows to 2 feet and bares leaves that are twice as long as wide, droopy flowers; E. angustfolia grows 1/2 to 3 feet tall with petals that are as long as its flower disk is wide. The Omaha Indians believed the smaller echinacea varieties (E. angustfolia) were most potent than the larger varieties (E. pallida). However, this idea didn’t translate too far. In the early 1900s, Maude Grieve declared that E. angustfolia was a synonym for E. pallida.

Ancient Medicinal Uses for Echinacea

E. purpurea was used by Native Americans (specifically the Cheyenne, Choctaw and Kiowa) as a natural cough medicine and a throat soother. They would simply chew a piece of its root. They used this same remedy to treat dyspepsia, gonorrhea and, when mixed with Staghorn sumac root, veneral diseases.

E. pallida was used by the Sioux to treat rabies, mumps, measles, bad colds and smallpox. It was also highly valued for its effectiveness at remedying menstrual cramps and general spasmodic complaints. The Cheyenne used this variety of echinacea to treat rheumatism, arthritis, burns, poisons, eye inflammation, feverish complaints and boils.

Lastly, E. angustfolia, which was often called blacksampson echinacea, was universally used as an antidote for snake bites, and other poisonous conditions. Besides bites, an infusion of the leaves and roots was considered an analgesic and rubbed on pained necks by the Cheyenne. The Lakota applied freshly chewed root to sores, wounds and swellings. The Blackfoot Indians used it to treat toothaches.

Photo By timolina/Fotolia

Jennifer HeinzelFreelance writer, community herbalist and medicine maker, Jennifer Heinzel hails from the cold city of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Jennifer is an avid writer, especially for anything folklore or myth-related to herbalism. She has written for the Chequamegon co-op, the United Plant Savers' journal, and the NorthPoint Health & Wellness center. Visit Thymes Ancient Remedies to read more from Jennifer.

Related Content

Essential Folk Wisdom: Parsley

Parsley has been used in medicine, cosmetics and rituals throughout history.

Ecological Knowledge Growing in Kansas

Native Kansas plants are being researched in this project, launched by environmental studies faculty...

Concerned About Electromagnetic Fields? Here's What You Can Do to Minimize Risks

There’s plenty you can do to protect yourself—inside your home and out—from the potential risks of e...

The History of Echinacea, Part 2

After its exploding popularity in the late 19th century, echinacea was widely researched. Since then...

Content Tools

Post a comment below.


Subscribe today and save 58%

First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Subscribe to Mother Earth Living!

Welcome to Mother Earth Living, the authority on green lifestyle and design. Each issue of Mother Earth Living features advice to create naturally healthy and nontoxic homes for yourself and your loved ones. With Mother Earth Living by your side, you’ll discover all the best and latest information you want on choosing natural remedies and practicing preventive medicine; cooking with a nutritious and whole-food focus; creating a nontoxic home; and gardening for food, wellness and enjoyment. Subscribe to Mother Earth Living today to get inspired on the art of living wisely and living well.

Save Money & a Few Trees!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You’ll save an additional $5 and get six issues of Mother Earth Living for just $14.95! (Offer valid only in the U.S.)

Or, choose Bill Me and pay just $19.95.