Echinacea is native to much of North America, with its primary range being the Great Plains from Texas to Canada. Native Americans have used it as a traditional remedy for a variety of ailments since time immemorial. Native Americans traditionally used Echinacea for a wide variety of illnesses and injuries, from respiratory infections to snakebites. They typically used Echinacea angustifolia, although E.purpurea was an accepted substitute. When pioneers settled in the region in the 1800’s, they began using it as well. It was marketed for sale to the East coast by the 1880’s, and has been popular as a natural medicine ever since. In fact, it was the number one selling cold and flu remedy until the invention of manufactured sulfa antibiotics.
When science meets tradition
These days, Echinacea (especially E.purpurea) is most commonly used as a cold and flu remedy. Recent studies of the plant have shown that it contains complex sugars called Echinaceosides that act as immune stimulants to boost the immune system. However, scientists hypothesize that there are additional (and yet unknown) factors at work. While it does not prevent the onset of colds and flus, numerous studies have shown it to shorten their duration and severity. The whole plant (root, leaves, stems and flowers) is used, though some modern studies have shown that the above ground portion of the plant is more effective than the roots. It is commercially available in many forms, but most typically as a tea or in pill form.
Grow your own!
While Echinacea is easy to find at most natural food stores, it is easy to grow your own. Not only will this ensure that you know how it was grown, but you can also enjoy the beautiful flowers that it will produce in your yard, and the beautiful birds and bees it will attract. Since Echinacea is native to such a variety of climates, it is suitable for planting in most soil types and zones (2-10). It can be directly sown into your prepared beds in fall or spring. Simply broadcast the seeds in a sunny spot and rake them into the soil. When they are an inch tall, thin them to 20” apart. They will reach a height of 2 to 4 feet, with large colorful daisy-like flowers in the summer and fall. They are perennial, so leave those roots in to enjoy them year after year! Echinacea attracts bees, beneficial insects, and small birds such as finches that like to eat the seeds. Depending on your annual rainfall and climate, they can be grown with little to moderate water, and their drought-tolerant nature makes them suitable for xeriscaping. They make for beautiful cut flower arrangements, as well. You can get double duty out of them by harvesting the flowers for bouquets, and then the blooms fade you can dry the whole cutting for use when cold and flu season arrives.