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Controversial Coneflower

By Audrey Stallsmith

echinacea purpurea

Leo was wide awake and was tickling his brother's leg with a dried cone-flower he had pulled out of the hay. Ambrosch kicked him and turned over.

Willa Cather, My Antonia

In the middle of cold and flu season, it seems appropriate to talk about what is probably this country's most popular--and controversial---herbal remedy: echinacea or coneflower. Although I have been in the habit of calling the plant "eh-kin-ay-see-ah," I now read that the proper pronunciation is "eh-kin-ay-sha."

According to which study you believe, coneflower is either one of the most effective disease preventers known to man, or a highly over-hyped remedy. We might consider this disagreement symbolic of the continuing clash between conventional and alternative medicine.

Although conventional practitioners have had to accept their patients' preference for gentler herbal remedies, we can sense that many of them do so with the utmost reluctance! And, since echinacea is probably the most used of those remedies, it bears the brunt of the attack.

The herb's name derives from the Greek echinos or "hedgehog" (AKA "porcupine"), in reference to the flowers prickly cone. So echinacea has been known as hedgehog coneflower, as well as purple coneflower, purple daisy, and the more racist sampson root--an allusion to the plant's black root.

The wildflower originated in the Plains States and Tennessee, though the Tennessee variety is now endangered. Native Americans used it to treat colds, sore gums, burns, snake and insect bites, etc, and purified themselves in their sweat lodges with echinacea steam. Wiley medicine men numbed their tongues with the plant's chewed leaves before mouthing hot coals--a feat that naturally impressed potential patients!

Some hold that the tingle, then numbness, that echinacea imparts to the tongue proves the herb's freshness and potency. "Flat" coneflower is supposed to have lost its medicinal effectiveness. (Even that claim is debatable, however. Others believe the element that imparts the tingle decreases the herb's power!)

In the late 1800's, echinacea gained a snake-oil reputation, when it was patented as Meyer's Blood Purifier, supposedly effective against even the bites of rattlers! The plant was able to rise above its unfortunate associations with patent medicine, however, to become exceedingly popular into the 1920's. Once modern antibiotics made their debut, though, the herb was largely forgotten. Now that those antibiotics have been shown to have their drawbacks, echinacea is resurging.

According to Michael Castleman, author of The Healing Herbs, the plant contains a natural antibiotic that fights a wide range of viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Another of its elements stimulates the white blood cells that destroy germs, while yet another resists those germs' tissue-destroying enzymes. Thus, echinacea's strongest reputation is for preventing disease.

It looses its effectiveness if used constantly, however, so it is best to take it only when you know your body to be stressed, or when persons close to you are sick and you want to avoid contracting their illnesses. Since coneflower is also anti-inflammatory and encourages production of new tissue, it can treat cuts, burns, skin problems, and arthritis as well.

Many conventional doctors sneer that such herbs work only because the users believe they will. I suspect that is true of all medicines, though, both conventional and alternative. The Great Physician, after all, emphasized how much healing depends on faith.

Because body, soul, and spirit are so interlocked, I suspect that all three have to be open to a remedy before it can help. So, if you trust your doctor and believe in the course of treatment he is prescribing, you are much more likely to benefit from it. If, however, you tell yourself that you are only going to get worse, your body will probably be happy to oblige you! Its job is, after all, to carry out commands from the brain.

Even if you're not into herbal medicine, you will discover that coneflower makes a robust ornamental plant for the garden. It is quite easy to grow in sandy, limey soil and full sun, and will often remain in bloom for a couple months.

Although echinacea does look something like a purple (actually magenta) daisy, its center is more dome-shaped and its petals tend to curve downward. Echinacea augustifolia, or "narrow-leaved coneflower" is the smaller, but more medicinally potent variety. It only grows to about two feet in height with two-inch flowers. Echinacea purpurea or "purple coneflower," on the other hand, can grow taller than three feet. Although its flowers are usually about four inches across one new variety, Ruby Giant, is reputed to produce 7-inch blooms.

Another recent innovation is a double-flowered echinacea known as Razzmatazz which some have called "the Holy Grail of the plant world." Although there have always been less well known white and yellow coneflowers as well as purple, a new variety, Orange Meadowbrite, is lauded as the first orange echinacea.

Like Razzmatazz, it will probably make all of us gardeners slaver. Our shared mania for attaining new and exotic plants is, perhaps, the only contagion that coneflower won't help us fight!

Echinacea purpurea image is from the National Geographic Society, courtesy of The Southwest School of Botanical Medicine.