Echinacea • article and photos by Steven Foster
Echinacea is a plant group that has fascinated me since my first spring in Arkansas in 1980. When May came around in my remote home in Izard County, Arkansas, brilliant roadside display of beautiful purple coneflowers dotted the roadsides. That spring, I met a young field botanist, Richard Davis. Richard had come to north central Arkansas in search of a rare species of Echinacea, the yellow-flowered Ozark endemic, Echinacea paradoxa. We found it growing in a healthy population. It was the first time it had been collected in Arkansas in twenty years. Richard died of cancer at an early age, a great loss to Arkansas field botany in the 1980s. When I see Echinacea paradoxa I always think of him. He sparked my continuing curiosity to learn more about this fascinating plant group.
Arkansas turned out to be a good place to begin learning about Echinacea, since five of the nine species in the genus Echinacea grow here.
Echinacea is a genus in the aster family (Asteraceae). There are nine species of Echinacea. The three species most commonly found in herb products are Echinacea angustifolia, E. purpurea and E. pallida. Other species include two Federally-listed endangered species including E. tennesseensis (obviously from Tennessee), and the rare Appalachian species, E. laevigata. The yellow-flowered E. paradoxa (the paradox of this "purple coneflower" is its yellow flowers) and E. simulata are both native to the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri. Echinacea simulata also occurs just east of the Mississippi. Other unusual species include E. atrorubens, found in eastern Kansas Oklahoma, and northeastern Texas and E. sanguinea, which occurs in Louisiana and eastern Texas, with one population in southwestern Arkansas.
As a botanical photographer, I often get requests for Echinacea photos. The first question I ask the caller, is what species are you looking for? Most of the time they are looking for E. purpurea or E. angustifolia, the most commonly used species in the American herb trade. Although E. purpurea, E. angustifolia, and E. pallida are used for the same purposes, there are distinct differences in their chemistry, even in different plant parts, which can affect how (or if) a preparation works. Therefore, when discussing Echinacea, it has become important to ask the question "which species?" This is a significant point in herbal medicine in general. If we do not know exactly what plant material we are working with, than questions can arise about if a product will work. Plant identification is one of the most significant and often ignored aspects of herbal medicine. It is a very important aspect of understanding Echinacea.
After beginning to appreciate Echinacea as a wildflower for its beauty, I became interested in delving into its history. I soon discovered that all roads led back to the writings of John Uri Lloyd. Those interested in the history of American medicinal plants know the name John Uri Lloyd (1849-1936). Lloyd became an apprentice in pharmacy at the age fourteen. Eventually Lloyd and his two brothers, Curtis Gates Lloyd and Nelson Ashley Lloyd, formed Lloyd Brothers Pharmacists, Inc. They manufactured 379 "specific medicines," primarily derived from American medicinal plants, made for use by Eclectic physicians. Eclectic physicians, who thrived in the United States from the 1850s into the 1940s, relied heavily on American medicinal plants. Lloyd was responsible for the first pharmaceutical preparations of Echinacea introduced into the medical profession in 1895. From that time into the 1920s, Echinacea (specifically preparations of Echinacea angustifolia) became the most widely prescribed American medicinal plant by physicians in the United States.
John Uri Lloyd was not just a pharmacist. He was a teacher, philanthropist, inventor, and a prolific author. He wrote more than 5000 periodical articles, 6 scientific treatises, and 8 novels. Lloyd and his brothers also created the Lloyd Library and Museum in Cincinnati. With over a quarter million volumes, the Lloyd Library is still the world's most important medicinal plant library.
In 1904, John Uri Lloyd made an incredible prediction. "This [herb], which has slowly wedged its way into attention, is persistently forcing itself into conspicuity. The probabilities are that in a time to come, it will be ardently sought and widely used, for it is not one of the multitude that have flashed into sight, been artfully pushed, then investigated, found wanting, and next dropped out of sight and out of mind." The time of which he wrote is now.
If you take a quick glance at the history of medicine, you will soon realize that Echinacea was most widely used by American physicians before the advent of antibiotics. Sulfa drugs appeared in the 1920s and penicillin in the early 1940s. Prior to the development of antibiotics, physicians found Echinacea useful for very difficult to treat conditions, such as gangrene, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and other serious diseases. Once antibiotics were developed, Echinacea fell into obscurity in the United States. The late 1930s was also a time of the rise of scientific-based "phytomedicine" in Germany.
Until the late 1930s, Echinacea angustifolia was the only species used. In 1939, Echinacea purpurea was introduced into medical practice. Due to continuing supply shortages, in the late 1930s, Dr. Gerhard Madaus, founder of the Madaus Co., in Cologne, a leading manufacturer of Echinacea products in Germany for over seventy years, came to the United States in search of seeds. He bought "Echinacea angustifolia" seeds from a Chicago seed company. The plants that grew from the seeds, however, turned out to be Echinacea purpurea. Following the logic that it might be equally as good as Echinacea angustifolia, he experimented with fresh plant preparations of Echinacea purpurea. Eventually products were made from it. As a result, most of the European scientific research conducted on Echinacea in the past seventy years involved Echinacea purpurea products.
Today, Echinacea products, including those made from the roots of E. angustifolia and E. pallida, as well as the above ground parts (both fresh and dried) and the roots of E. purpurea are among the best-selling native American medicinal plants in the North American market. Echinacea products are also among the best-selling immunostimulants in the European market. In 1994 German physicians, who prescribed Echinacea over 2.5 million times.
Echinacea is valued as a short-term stimulant to the immune system, especially as a preventative at the onset of colds and flu, or to reduce the symptoms and duration of cold and flu infections. Various species of Echinacea, including the roots of E. angustifolia, E. pallida, and E. purpurea, have been found to stimulate the immune system. Also isolated Echinacea components soluble in alcohol, as well as different compounds soluble in water from different Echinacea species have been found to stimulate the immune system.
One proposed mechanism of action for Echinacea preparations is stimulation of phagocytosis in the blood stream. Phagocytosis is the first defense component of the cellular immune system, a process that helps to prevent the invasion of foreign substances in the body. One important factor in immunostimulation is an increase in phagocytosis (by macrophages and granulocytes). Macrophages and granulocytes are cells in the blood that "ingest" invading pathogens or particles acting like janitors or guardians of the blood stream.
Other components in Echinacea have been shown to have a mild antibacterial and fungicidal activity. These compounds have been found to slow down the spread of bacteria, rather than kill them outright like an antibiotic. Other components have been shown to increase fibroblasts (cells involved in the development of connective tissue) helping to stimulate new tissue development. Properdin, a serum protein complex, which helps to activate different immune system mechanisms, has also been shown to be increased by Echinacea extracts. Rather than relying on one chemical compound, or "magic bullet," or one mechanism of action, Echinacea seems to work on a multifaceted level to help the body help itself.
The results of several widely publicized controlled clinical studies on Echinacea products in recent years have found that compared to placebo, Echinacea may have little effect in the prevention and treatment of upper respiratory tract infections. I wonder about the dosage and quality of plant materials used in many studies. For my own personal use, I find that Echinacea works to help eliminate colds or flu, or help fight minor infections, if I take it at the onset of symptoms, when I feel like I’m coming down with something. In these cases, I usually use a liquid Echinacea product, often the expressed-fresh juice of E. purpurea. If I already have a cold, I prefer to use a tincture of Echinacea angustifolia to help knock back symptoms. For general maintenance and prevention. When I suffer from minor infections or to help prevent colds and flu, Echinacea is still my herb of choice.