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[Student Highlight] Herbalism Through the Ages: Echinacea

The following is an essay submitted for the Foundations of Bioregional Herbalism 2023 program by student Talia Shearer.    


Echinacea is a genus indigenous to North America (Hobbs). Out of the 9 species of Echinacea, three are used for their medicinal and therapeutic properties (Burlou-Nagy, et al., 2022). Echinacea angustifolia DC, Echinacea purpurea (L.), and Echinacea pallida (Nutt.) are the primary species of interest in this paper. 

        The use of Echinacea has a long-standing history. Archeological evidence from Lakota Sioux village sites documents that echinacea was used by Native Americans as early as the 1600s (Hobbs). It is important to note however that many groups of Native Americans had “thousands of years of direct experience with herbs” (Hobbs). So, there is no true knowing how early their experiences with Echinacea are. In their culture, as well as in colonial era America, Echinacea was particularly an herb of interest (Hobbs). Hobbs claims that Echinacea could be considered the most significant of all the indigenous remedies introduced to European colonizers by Native Americans, as it was reported to have been used as treatment for more diseases than any other plant.

        The indigenous applications of Echinacea are extensive and substantial. For example, Echinacea angustifolia DC was used as a throat aid, a gastrointestinal aid, an analgesic, oral aid to increase saliva, veterinary aid, a rattlesnake bite antidote, burn dressing, antirheumatic, anticonvulsive, anesthetic, as well as a treatment for septic diseases, over perspiring, eye sores, toothache, enlarged glands, and many more (Native American ethnobotany database). Echinacea purpurea (L.) was used as a cough medicine, gastrointestinal aid, and venereal aid (Native American ethnobotany database). Echinacea pallida (Nutt.) was used as a cold remedy (Native American ethnobotany database). It’s important to note that many of the listed uses intersect among all three species. Most of these applications were passed on to the colonial people and therefore became an integral part of their medical practices. Some are still used to this day. 

         Echinacea was introduced into the medical profession (ca. 1870s) by the folk doctor H. C. F. Meyer and it was added to the Materia Medica by Eclectics John King and John Uri Lloyd in 1887 due to its acclaim and popular use among Eclectic and “regular” physicians (Hobbs). Meyer learned of Echinacea’s uses from the Sioux and Pawnee peoples (Maier, 2021). Most ethnobotanical information available today on Echinacea came from Native Americans in the Great Plains (Hobbs). Meyer went on to develop the first marketed Echinacea product, the “Meyers Blood Purifier”, in about 1880, which was used for “rheumatism, neuralgia, and rattlesnake bites” (K, 2003). Medicinal uses of various Echinacea species were described in Flora Virginica in 1762, with E. purpurea being noted for its root taste and usefulness in the treatment of horse saddle sores (Hobbs). In 1830, there was a record of the Sioux using Echinacea for syphilis (Hobbs). Also, in what may be the first article written on Echinacea, Echinacea tincture, and decoction were said to be very successful in the treatment of venereal diseases, even “in its worst forms” (Hobbs). Additionally, in a letter from Meriwether Lewis to Thomas Jefferson (ca. 1805), Lewis explains the use of Echinacea externally to aid bites from “the mad wolf or dog”, as well as for rattlesnake bites (“Description of a Plant by Meriwether Lewis, 5 March 1805”). 

         The Eclectic school played a significant role in increasing Echinaea’s prominence within the field of herbal medicine and it even was considered to be the most popular herb throughout the Eclectic era (Hobbs). The Eclectics worked with preparations of Echinacea (made with high alcohol contents) that were used for “insect bites, snake and spider bites, the bites of rabid dogs, diphtheria, typhoid, carbuncles, cerebrospinal meningitis complicated by herpes, blood-poisoning, puerperal septicemia, gonorrhea, eczema, syphilis, and pyemia” (Hobbs). In 1915, Echinacea was used to treat tuberculosis and the plant’s immunoregulatory actions were first noted (Hobbs). Echinacea was the most popular and utilized preparation in America in the early 20th century (K, 2003). Around the 1930s, the use of Echinacea began to decline due to the introduction of antibiotics and criticism by the American Medical Association (Ertel, 2000; Maier, 2021). Its use was denounced by the field of “regular” medicine and was labeled a “quack remedy” (Hobbs). Despite this, many “regular” physicians used Echinacea clinically (Hobbs). In fact, medical literature at the time documents the successes physicians had in treating oral diseases, typhoid, puerperal fever, anthrax, boils, and various veterinary conditions (Hobbs). Also, around this time, Germany began cultivating Echinacea commercially as well as experimenting and reporting on Echinacea purpurea (L.) (Hobbs; K, 2003). Upon findings of its immunomodulatory abilities, the popularity of Echinacea in medicine increased and is continuing to do so (Hobbs). 

         Research on Echinacea’s pharmacology began in 1897 when John Uri Lloyd published the first record on Echinacea’s constituents, in a time when (even after 11 years of Echinacea circulating medical practice) not much was known of Echinacea’s chemical composition (Hobbs). After it was brought to Europe by homeopaths, the first lab work experiments and recordings were done around the 1920s and 30s in Germany (Hobbs). Since this, over 400 journal articles have been published on Echinacea, its pharmacology, chemistry, and uses (Hobbs). Current studies show that “preparations of Echinacea have strong antiviral, antifungal, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and psychoactive activities.”(Burlou-Nagy et al.,2022). According to Burlou-Nagy, et al., the most vital bioactive compounds in E. purpurea are “alkylamides, polysaccharides, glycoproteins, flavonoids and phenolic compounds” (notably including caffeic acid, chicoric acid, and echinacoside) (2022). Echinacea plants specifically have high levels of alkamides (Burlou-Nagy et al., 2022). Alkamides are known to have “immunomodulatory, antithrombotic, antimicrobial, antiviral, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic” bioactivities (Elufioye, et al., 2020). This would make sense then, why Native Americans (and early 20th-century physicians) used Echinacea for toothaches, coughs, various viral and bacterial ailments, etc. This is a great example of current research supporting indigenous and folk uses of Echinacea.

        Furthermore, the primary areas of research concerning Echinacea species applications today, are the immunomodulatory effects the plants have and their effects on upper respiratory tract infections (Burlou-Nagy et al., 2022). In fact, in Europe, Echinacea products are currently licensed to treat upper respiratory tract infections, as well as aid in wound care (Burlou-Nagy et al., 2022). This makes sense because these are common health issues that our culture is facing today. However, The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stated that outside of research for upper respiratory infections and the common cold, little (if any) research has yet been done on Echinacea’s possible benefits for other health concerns (2020). This could be a major limitation on how information on Echinacea could be utilized medicinally, as shown by its countless historical and indigenous uses that could be explored. 

         Nowadays, E. purpurea is “among the best-selling herbal medications in Europe and the United States” (Burlou-Nagy et al., 2022). As a practicing herbalist, Maier recommends E. purpurea, as E. angustifolia is now on the At-Risk List, however she finds that E. angustifolia is the more medicinal of the two (2021). Today, Echinacea’s most common use is to decrease longevity and reduce the effects of common colds and the flu (Ertel, 2000). According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2020), Echinacea is “a dietary supplement for the common cold and other infections”. However, it is also a common remedy for cough, fever, and sore throat, and it is known to “boost the immune system” (Ertel, 2000). According to Ertel, herbalists may also suggest Echinacea to treat “urinary tract infections, ear infections, athlete’s foot, hay fever, and slow healing wounds” (2000). The most popular echinacea products available now are liquid extracts, herb powders and freeze-dried extracts in capsules or tablets, and fresh E. purpurea juice (with ethanol for stability) (Hobbs). 


          Looking into the possible future applications of Echinacea in the realm of modern research, areas of concern surround the use of pharmaceuticals and even biotechnology. Burlou-Nagy, et al. state that the cannabinomimetric properties (due to the plant’s high level of alkamides interacting with cannabinoid receptors) of E. purpurea have “major importance for the development of new pharmaceuticals” and the treatment of inflammatory ailments (2022). Also, Sharifi-Rad, et al., suggest the potential use of Echinacea as an “antioxidant and antibacterial agent in food” (2018). Since inflammatory diseases are a very common issue in our culture and people, it makes sense that this is a prioritized area of research, however, the push for developing pharmaceuticals and urging further research can be problematic. Especially when ignoring and discrediting the indigenous, folk, and even household uses for Echinacea. It also offers the issue of erasing the plant’s sovereignty as a being, which endangers the plant itself as well as the ecology, cultures, and communities surrounding it.

In a nutshell, Echinacea has extensive abilities and applications that come alongwith a well-established history. Its medicinal and therapeutic applications have changed and evolved alongside the cultures and societies surrounding it. With the decline of certain diseases and a shift toward Western medicine, the diverse range of medicinal practices with Echinacea have lessened. However, some practices have endured, showcasing deeply rooted traditional and indigenous roots. For example, in the treatment of colds, wounds, and various viral symptoms. Echinacea is actively utilized today by indigenous people, contemporary herbalists, and many households. Modern research concerning Echinacea has its benefits and pitfalls when it comes to encouraging therapeutic applications with the plant. In some ways, it goes hand in hand with and further supports its indigenous and folk applications. Hopefully, as time goes on, indigenous, folk, and modern therapeutic applications of Echinacea will be encouraged and more people will dive deeper into understanding this already popular herb.


Annotated Bibliography

Burlou-Nagy, C., Bănică, F., Jurca, T., Vicaș, L. G., Marian, E., Muresan, M. E., Bácskay, I., Kiss, R., Fehér, P., & Pallag, A. (2022, May 5). echinacea purpurea (L.) moench: Biological and pharmacological properties. A Review. Plants (Basel, Switzerland). Dolor, L.I. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit, 1998. Print. 

“Description of a Plant by Meriwether Lewis, 5 March 1805,” Founders Online, National Archives, [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 45, 11 November 1804 to 8 March 1805, ed. James P. McClure et al. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021, pp. 682–683.]

Elufioye, T. O., Habtemariam, S., & Adejare, A. (2020, October 9). Chemistry and pharmacology of alkylamides from natural origin. Revista brasileira de farmacognosia : orgao oficial da Sociedade Brasileira de Farmacognosia. 

Ertel, G. and McQueen, C. E. PharmD, (2000, March 1). Echinacea purpurea and treatment of the common cold: 2000-03-01: ... Relias Media. 

Hobbs, C. (n.d.-a). Echinacea: A Literature Review: Botany, History, Chemistry, Pharmacology, Toxicology, and Clinical Uses. Herbalgram.web. 

K:, H. (2003, April 10). [history of a plant: The example of echinacea]. Forschende Komplementarmedizin und klassische Naturheilkunde = Research in complementary and natural classical medicine.,dates%20from%20the%2018th%20century

Maier, K. (2021). Energetic herbalism a guide to sacred plant traditions integrating elements of vitalism, ayurveda, and Chinese medicine. Chelsea Green Publishing

National Archives and Records Administration. (2008, June 22). Mrs. Bush’s Remarks at a First Bloom Event . National Archives and Records Administration. 

Native american ethnobotany database. BRIT. (n.d.). 

Sharifi-Rad, M., Mnayer, D., Morais-Braga, M. F., Carneiro, J. N., Bezerra, C. F., Coutinho, H. D., Salehi, B., Martorell, M., del Mar Contreras, M., Soltani-Nejad, A., Uribe, Y. A., Yousaf, Z., Iriti, M., & Sharifi-Rad, J. (2018). <I>echinacea</i>plants as antioxidant and antibacterial agents: From traditional medicine to biotechnological applications. Phytotherapy Research, 32(9), 1653–1663. 

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020, July). Echinacea. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.,for%20wounds%20and%20skin%20problems.

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