The coneflower was one of the most important medicinal plants of the Native American tribes of the eastern part and prairies of North America – in particular the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, Omaha, Kiowa and Comanche. Its many potential applications were chronicled by European immigrants, traders and trappers, and later, in the early 20th century by ethnobotanists, too. For example, the coneflower was used as a versatile painkiller for the treatment of sore throats, stomach and toothache, as an anti-inflammatory drug for injuries and poorly-healing wounds, for the treatment of blood poisoning, snakebites and rabies, for all symptoms that may be associated with flu or colds, for the treatment of skin infections and as a tonic for pox infections. Chewed or squashed roots – for example, in poultices – chewed leaves or tea made from fresh petals, leaves and roots were used.
And evidently with great success: the botanist Prof. Kelly Kindscher (of the University of Kansas) was able to demonstrate that the plant was used by 19 tribes of prairie Native Americans alone as well as by many other tribes in the east and south-east of the present-day USA. As long ago as 1805, the explorers Lewis and Clark sent the roots and seeds of this medicinal plant to the then President, Thomas Jefferson – which was remarkable because, according to Kindscher, such treatment was afforded only to wares of “the very highest scientific or economic value”. And it is with good reason that echinacea continues to be used today by the original inhabitants of North America (among others).
Cultivation, plant species and form of preparation are key to quality.
In the late 19th century, the German immigrant H. C. F. Meyer discovered the plant and introduced it into naturopathy in the USA as “Meyer’s Blood Purifier”. In Europe, the coneflower species were initially used for decorative purposes; their medical potential was only discovered in the 1930s and researched by scientists much later. As so often, the Swiss naturopath Alfred Vogel played a pioneering role: Vogel was fond of telling the story of how he received his first Echinacea purpurea (in Lakota Ichahpe hu) seeds at the start of the 1950s from the Lakota chief Ben Black Elk. He subsequently made an outstanding contribution to the cultivation of the Native American plant in Switzerland.
Due to its positive effect on the immune system, and in particular on colds and other infections caused by viruses, the purple coneflower became one of Alfred Vogel’s favourite plants – and well-known throughout Switzerland. The most important applications for echinacea remedies today are in the prevention of colds (a central European suffers on average between two and five influenza infections per year) and for severe infections such as flu (influenza) and the alleviation of symptoms if an infection has already occurred.
Of the nine species of the genus echinacea, which are native to the central and south-eastern parts of the USA, several are widespread while others are only found in very limited areas. The greatest medical importance was naturally attained by the three most widespread and frequent types: as well as the red or purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), the pale purple coneflower or prairie hedgehog coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and the narrow-leaved purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia). Some Native Americans used one type more frequently than the others, depending on the origin of the tribe. Nowadays, however, the purple coneflower is primarily used for medicinal purposes, with the other two types having diminished in importance.
Echinacea flower: important for wild bees and butterflies, too.
And this is with good reason. As well as essential oils, the key active components of echinacea include caffeic acid derivatives, polysaccharides and glycoproteins, polyynes (a type of hydrocarbon) and flavonoids. A very specific and highly important role is played by alkylamides (also: alkamides), which have many immunomodulatory and anti-inflammatory characteristics.
Different plant types, however, contain different constituents. In addition, the freshly blooming leaves, roots and even the entire plant are also used for the production of medicinal echinacea products. The leaves and roots of the purple coneflower and the narrow-leaved purple coneflower have approximately the same substance groups, albeit differing in type and composition and in different amounts. A few examples: The alkamides in the roots of the purple coneflower differ from those in the narrow-leaved purple cornflower. The root of the pale purple coneflower contains this important substance group in a smaller amount. The amount of cichoric acid (a caffeic acid) in E. purpurea is around ten times higher than in the other two types, while the purple coneflower also contains the substance echinacoside, which occurs in E. angustifolia and E. pallida. (it should be borne in mind that such statements also vary depending on the source.) In the 1990s, two polysaccharideswere identified only in the roots of E. purpurea that are also considered to be immunomodulatory.
Echinacea isn’t always echinacea So it’s no surprise that in 1989, the German Federal Health Ministry’s Expert Commission for medicinal plants approved only the fresh leaves of Echinacea purpurea. The intervening years, however, have yielded a number of new and differentiated findings.
The purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a valuable and versatile medicinal plant – especially in the flu season.
Scientific research into echinacea The three types of echinacea mentioned and the medicinal products derived from them have been subjected to dozens of studies over the decades. And scarcely a year goes by without one of these studies hitting the headlines again. As regular as clockwork, these state either that “echinacea doesn’t help colds” or “echinacea does help colds”. So where does this confusion come from? Millions of people who have had positive experiences after taking echinacea are made to feel uncertain by these reports. The answer, unfortunately, is that the proverbial apples are compared with pears in far too many of these studies. To mention just a few points that can give rise to contradictory statements:
- three different plant types (or products manufactured from them) are being studied which, as already mentioned, differ in terms of the composition of their constituents.
- There is an abundance of different formulations on the market: fresh plant extracts, alcohol-based tinctures, dried extracts, powdered drug and tea preparations. In these products, fresh or dried plants are used – the above-ground plant parts, roots or combinations of both.
- The number of participants in the studies fluctuates between a few dozen and several hundred.
- The research subjects are on the one hand patients who contract a cold in their normal living environment and on the other, individuals infected with cold viruses under laboratory conditions.
An assessment of the efficacy of echinacea preparations must take into account the plant species and components used, the methods of preparation and the condition of the plants.
There is also an abundance of additional factors that mean studies are not comparable or not very meaningful. This prompts Dr Karin Ardjomand-Wölkart and Prof. Rudolf Bauer of the University of Graz, who have conducted a great deal of research into echinacea, to state: “Clinical studies of echinacea preparations are still unsatisfactory. However, a number of studies suggest an effect, in particular with regard to preparations from the leaves of E. purpurea.” And to urge: “In future, clinical studies should be carried out with clearly defined products.”
Nonetheless, a number of studies have been conducted which withstand strict scientific scrutiny and on the basis of which serious statements on the effect of Echinacea purpurea can be made. A study on cold prevention with purple coneflower in 2006, for example, was rated one of the 25 best scientific studies of that year. This study was conducted by researchers from Switzerland and the United Kingdom, and for the first time provided proof that a specific echinacea preparation has a preventative effect against influenza infections.
In addition, it has also since been proven that:
- substances designated as alkamides are largely responsible for the anti-inflammatory and immunostimulatory effect of the purple coneflower. They resemble cannabinoids and also attach to the same receptor sites of somatic cells. Cannabinoids have both suppressive and stimulatory effects on the immune system by regulating the release of cytokines. These are endogenous substances which play a role in inflammations and immune response.
- However, echinacea also appears to have a broad and direct impact on cold pathogens, thus protecting against infections in prevention in particular. It has been demonstrated that viruses do not develop resistances to the medicinal plant, even in the case of long-term use – as has been observed to some extent with synthetic agents. Naturally, antiviral constituents are present in larger amounts in preparations made from fresh echinacea than from dried material.
- In 2012, having carried out the largest long-term study to date with echinacea preparations, English scientists concluded that taking coneflower preparations as a preventative measure both prevents the occurrence of colds and reduces the number of days of illness. This means not only that the individual catches a cold less frequently but also that colds last on average a day and a half less.
- Without echinacea prophylaxis, the risk of occurrence of recurring infections is 60 per cent higher.
- People with a weakened immune system (as a result, for example, of lack of sleep, stress or smoking) benefit in particular.
- Studies from 2013 demonstrated that echinacea extracts also have a direct effect on flu, herpes and corona viruses.
- Eminent researchers in the field of echinacea prophylaxis also conclude that echinacea preparations are essentially well tolerated and have no interaction potential. Therefore, longer-term intake is highly recommended.
Echinacea purpurea has a modulating effect on the immune system. This means that the cells of our defence system are stimulated to to become active in a moderate and lasting manner as soon as – and only when – the body comes into contact with pathogens, above all as a result of stress, lack of sleep and smoking. But why does our immune system need help at all?
The vast protective network in our body, which we call the immune or body defence system, is designed to intercept, render harmless and carry away pathogens. In principle, everything functions in the same way as a very well-organised company: in a well-trained immune system transport, production, storage, logistics and security are maintained to the very highest standard, interlinked and strategically oriented.
The body fluids (lymph and blood) and organs (incl. mucous membranes, skin, airways, tonsils, spleen and intestines) of the immune system hold immune cells until they are deployed. They are mainly in places that many pathogens must pass – which enables these sentries to swiftly take action against them. At least a dozen different types of cells communicate by means of messengers, detect intruders, produce antibodies to combat pathogens and attack and destroy infected (and tumour) cells.
However, keeping a well-organised company running smoothly is always a challenge – especially at times when the external circumstances are unfavourable. Damp and cold weather, dry air, overheated rooms which are not ventilated often enough, firm handshakes with unwashed hands, too many warm embraces among friends and acquaintances – cold viruses simply have it too easy. Add factors such as stress, poor sleep, inadequate nutrition and other disorders – for example, a previous cold with another of the 200 known pathogens – and the next virus has found a fresh victim.
The immune system, however tirelessly it works, cannot deal with all these influences. This means help is welcome in regulating the immune response at these stressful times. And it is precisely the purple coneflower which is best able to do this.
Alfred Vogel was convinced of the health benefits of the purple coneflower from the early 1950s. And the research findings described show how correct he was in his judgement. But that’s not all: he insisted on producing his preparations from fresh plants because they have “a greater effect than preparations from dried plants” and “fresh plant preparations have a swifter, stronger and more profound effect than can be achieved with preparations from dried plants”. Once again, the pioneer of naturopathy was correct: as early as in 1994, it was demonstrated that a fresh plant extract produced from the purple coneflower contains almost three times as many alkamides as a product made from dried material.
In 2013, a Canadian research group was able to prove for the first time that the fresh plant has a ten times greater effect on viruses than the dried plant, since it contains all constituents.
Constituents lost in the drying process, such as volatile and essential oils, terpenes, glycosides and valuable secondary plant substances, are not replaceable. Naturally, this also applies to preparations made from Echinacea purpurea, with its complex and virtually unique mixture of substances.
Alfred Vogel (1902 - 1996).
Nowadays, the purple coneflower can not only be found in most medicine cabinets but also in many gardens. Undemanding and easy to care for, this herbaceous perennial blooms constantly from summer to autumn. The coneflower is perfect for rockeries and herbaceous borders and is also popular as a cut flower. It can survive in temperatures as low as -40 °C. After blossoming, even the stems, with their spiny seed heads, are an attractive decoration in the until winter – and also a wonderful food source for birds.
Naturally, the pale purple coneflower (E. pallida) and the narrow-leaved purple coneflower (E. angustifolia) can be planted in the garden, too. However, the purple coneflower is not only the most medically effective but also the most visually pleasing species of coneflower and has the most strains and varieties. The American species of coneflower species are not to be confused with the mainly yellow-blooming rudbeckia.
Two other sisters of the coneflower: Echinacea angustifolia (li.) and Echinacea pallida (re.)
In their original home, the dry regions of central and northern North America, these perennials ranging in colour from pink to purple with dark-green foliage grow on prairies, on stony, hilly terrain, on scree slopes and in open woodland. So in our climate, they require one thing above all: to be planted in a warm, sunny spot with nutrient-rich soil which drains well. In shadier and damper spots, the blossom is sparser and less beautiful. Coneflower generally doesn’t cope well with winter moisture and waterlogged soil; if in doubt, it is important to think about good drainage. In colder regions, a layer of mulch can help to protect plants from the cold early in the year. Once established, coneflowers survive hot days and dry periods without problems and do not require much watering.
Echinacea varieties grow in clusters and to up to 150 centimetres in height. With their black, rhizome-like rootstock, they anchor themselves firmly in the ground. In the right spot, they blossom year after year and self-seed. Unwanted seedlings can easily be removed. Regular watering is required after sowing or setting young plants so that they establish strong roots (this is not necessary later on). The purple coneflower requires little protection in winter; at most a layer of mulch; it is grateful for a little compost in the spring.
Rejuvenation is required after a few years. To do this, the root balls are dug out in March and divided into several pieces with the spade. All these pieces can be replanted and quickly regrow.
Seedling of an echinacea plant.
In good conditions, the purple coneflower flowers constantly with an abundance of newly-sprouting blossoms. By planting seven or eight plants per square metre, a lovely little sea of flowers will be created. For many years, growers paid little heed to the plant and suppliers largely sold plants with white and purple flowers. In the last 20 years, however, the number of strains from echinacea purpurea has increased to over 100 varieties in a huge range of colours and flower shapes. E. purpurea “Aloha” blooms in a subtle melon yellow while “Rainbow Marcella” yields flowers in shades of orange and pink. Echinacea “Tomato Soup” flowers, as the name suggests, are tomato red, while “Raspberry Truffle” blooms are in an old rose hue. The “Avalanche” and “White Swan” varieties produce brilliant white flowers.
There is a danger of confusion with rudbeckia with, for example, the “Leilani” and “Now Cheesier” varieties of E. purpurea, with the latter an especially attractive type with brilliant yellow ray florets and a green spiky cone. The reported cultivation of a blue variety of E. purpurea (“Blueberry Pie”) unfortunately turned out to be an April Fool’s joke. But the striking red “Hot Lava” and “Indian Summer” varieties also really catch the eye.
As lovely as the interplay of colours and shapes may be, with many of these strains it is also necessary to bear in mind that they are often not as appealing as the original to bees, bumblebees and butterflies. Double-flowered varieties are often less hardy. One way of achieving an explosion of colour in a perennial bed is by combining the “normal” purple coneflower with wild sage (Salvia nemorosa), button snakewort (Liatris spicata), varieties of anise hissop (Agastache) or scarlet beebalm (Monarda). An arrangement of purple coneflower and grasses looks especially delicate and natural.
Echinacea purpurea is a food source for honey and wild bees, bumblebees, hoverflies and bluebottles. Butterflies, from red admirals to brimstones, are attracted as if by magic to the spiny flower heads. However, regular thinning out should be undertaken during flowering time so that the plants develop plenty of new buds, though it is best to leave the stalks and the mature seeds for the winter period – this should be done not just for decorative purposes but also to provide shelter for insects and food for birds. The stalks can then be cut off close to the ground in spring just before new growth commences. Snails and voles also find the attractive plants literally to their taste. Therefore, it is necessary to regularly inspect the fresh spring green in particular for signs of nibbling and to remove snails if necessary.