Echinacea: A Native American Cure-All

Echinacea is native to North America and was used by Native Americans for its range of medicinal benefits. Archaeological digs have found evidence of echinacea use by the Lakota Sioux dating back to the 17th century. The Sioux were said to use it to treat syphilis. Other tribes known to have used echinacea include the Choctaw, Pawnee, and Cheyenne. It first became known to European arrivals at around the start of the 1800s.

The Europeans acquired their knowledge from the Native Americans (particularly those who lived in the Great Plains) who had amassed considerable knowledge of medicinal herbs. Among the Native Americans, echinacea may have been the most widely used medicinal plant of all in that it was used to treat more maladies than any other plant. 

The earliest mention of echinacea among Europeans in the US come from an English botanist named John Clayton who lived between 1693 and 1773. Clayton was a longtime resident of Virginia who mentioned the herb as a treatment for saddle sores on horses. 

Echinacea belongs to the Asteraceae family, which includes daisies as well as edible herbs like dandelion and arnica. It does not have many common English names but one of the few is the purple coneflower. In recent years there has been a renewed interest in the herb due to purported benefits for the immune system. Echinacea is viewed as one of the herbal supplements that show the most promise as far as its positive immune system effects are concerned. 

The Eclectic Medicine movement among doctors in the mid-19th-century medicine involved a strong focus on using botany to treat ailments. It was these doctors who made echinacea one of the main elements in herbal medicine. They used it to treat a range of illnesses and health conditions including snakebite, meningitis and tuberculosis. 

These days, the echinacea plant is a favorite of gardeners, not just for its potential medicinal value but for its attractive flowers as well. 

Echinacea flavor profile

Echinacea has an earthy taste accompanied by a tingling sensation. The tingling effect is caused by compounds it contains called alkamides.

Health benefits of echinacea

Echinacea’s health benefits come from the fact that it contains flavonoids and other antioxidants. The alkamides it contains boost the antioxidant activity. 

Echinacea may be effective for treating health issues like:

  • Respiratory ailments: Echinacea has long been used to treat coughs, sore throats and similar problems. These respiratory issues are often symptoms of colds or flu. There is some evidence that echinacea can shorten the duration of colds and the flu. 
  • Infections: Echinacea may reduce incidents of recurring infections such as malaria and vaginal yeast infections. This effect may result from its ability to boost the immune system. 
  • Pain: Echinacea may be useful as a pain reliever. Native Americans used it as an analgesic. 
  • Anxiety: Some of the compounds in echinacea may be beneficial for individuals suffering from anxiety. 
  • Colds: The most common use of echinacea today is to shorten the duration of colds. Studies suggest that using echinacea can shorten a cold by up to four days. 

Common uses

The most common way to use echinacea is to make an infusion with the leaves, roots, or petals by steeping it in hot water for about 20 minutes. Strain and drink. There are also commercial echinacea extracts available.