Herbs for Health: The Health Benefits of Echinacea

| February/March 1998

  • Echinacea purpurea

A few weeks ago, as I flipped through a copy of USA Today while flying home from New York, I was surprised to discover a full-page ad for an echinacea product. When a reporter from the National Public Radio science desk called the same week looking for information on echinacea as a dietary supplement, I knew that echinacea had come of age as a popular medicinal herb.

Echinacea has become the decade’s best-selling herb in U.S. health-food stores.

Once an obscure plant whose name few could pronounce, echinacea has become the decade’s best-selling herb in U.S. health-food stores. By stimulating the body’s immune system to work more effectively, echinacea wards off colds and flu if taken when symptoms first appear and speeds healing of existing infections.

Three Medicinal Species

Echinacea is not just one plant but a genus of nine species native to central North Amer­ica. Three species, Echinacea purpurea, E. angustifolia, and (to a lesser extent) E. pallida, are used in commercial herb products.

• E. purpurea , a favorite garden perennial with its brilliant late-summer display of large purple daisies on 3- to 4-foot stalks, was introduced into En­glish gardens as early as 1699 and has been under cultivation ever since. Unlike the other echinaceas, this species has a fibrous root instead of a taproot. The leaves are oval, tapering to a sharp point, with irregular teeth. It is the most widespread species of echinacea in North America, although not the most abundant, occurring in moist soils in woods, at edges of thickets and prairies, and near springs, often as a solitary plant or in small populations.

• E. angustifolia was the first species of echinacea to be marketed as a medicinal product (in 1895). The herb contains compounds that produce a numbing sensation on the tongue, which some herbalists view as evidence of its medicinal superiority over the other species. Smaller than other echinacea species, growing from 6 to 20 inches high with ray flowers no longer than 1 1/2 inches, it occurs in dry prairies and barrens in the western parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa north to Canada and west to eastern Colorado and Montana; the graves of Custer’s soldiers at Little Bighorn are dotted with these colorful plants.

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