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.
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.
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.
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.
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Freelance 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.