Echinacea angustifolia: Symbol of our program, symbol of healing
Echinacea, the familiar purple coneflower, is an all-purpose healer for many people. It’s used as an immune stimulant in herbal teas and tinctures in treatments for cold and flu, upper respiratory infection and in hair and skin-care products, adult and children’s vitamins and many other products. It’s also the symbol of our Native Medicinal Plant Research Program, found on our logo and in our printed materials.
From 2007 to 2008, echinacea sales went up 4.5 percent to $15.1 million. Echinacea was estimated by the National Health Interview Survey to be the third most common natural product in 2007, used by 4.8 million adults. Robert B. Saper, assistant professor of family medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine, said echinacea was the most commonly used herbal product by children in the U.S. In Germany, where herbal products are more integrated into medical practices, more than two million physicians’ prescriptions are filled each year for echinacea.
Long before echinacea became popular as an herbal remedy in the late 20th century, the people of this region were using it for a great variety of ailments. E. angustifolia, a species that occurs primarily in the Great Plains, was, according to the ethnobotanical record, the most widely used plant for medicinal purposes among Plains peoples. The Kiowa and Cheyenne treated colds and sore throats by chewing a piece of the root. Lakotas ate the root and fruit to satisfy thirst, and to help with the pain of toothache, tonsillitis and stomachache. Omahas used the plant as a local anesthetic and a pain reliever for sore eyes. To the Dakotas, it was also a remedy for snakebite, burning sensations and rabies. Echinacea is iconic, and one of our program’s projects focuses specifically on E. angustifolia. This is because it was the primary medicinal plant used by Plains tribes, and also because it typically is harvested from the wild and believed to be more potent than the well-known Echinacea purpurea, which typically is obtained from cultivated sources for use in herbal products. However, because of intensive harvesting, rural development and high intensity grazing, E. angustifolia is seen by some researchers as a species in decline.
Ethnobiologist Kelly Kindscher has studied the plant for more than 20 years. He heads the botany side of our program, which is based at the Kansas Biological Survey. He says that “for both Indians and Anglos, the purple coneflower has been the most widely and extensively harvested medicinal plant of the Prairie Bioregion.” Because of his personal interest, Kelly’s first project on E. angustifolia populations in 1989 focused on Native American and Anglo uses of the plant and the research of its medicinal uses.
The study of echinacea has continued at the Biological Survey through graduate student research and grant-funded medicinal and technical work. Kelly’s second book, Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie: An Ethnobotanical Guide, was published in 1992 and included a chapter on E. angustifolia. Then, from a grant funded by the U.S. Forest Service from 2001 through 2006, “National Conservation Assessment of Echinacea Species,” Kelly and other researchers, including the University of Kansas graduate student Dana Price, were able to do observational and technical work on echinacea. The project was funded because of the rising concern of the U.S. Forest Service, herbalists and others about the apparent decrease in echinacea populations. The objective was to study the conservation status of echinacea, incorporating harvests, markets, biology and ecology, including the resprout process, in which new plants sprout from roots that are deeply cut during the harvest.
The results of this study were published in 2008 in the journal Economic Botany, in an article titled “Resprouting of E. angustifolia Augments Sustainability of Wild Medicinal Plant Populations.” The results indicate concern for poor harvesting practices but also offer encouraging prospects for the conservation of this highly revered plant. Research shows that this echinacea species is able to regrow after intensive harvesting, and though wild harvesting and developmental work have diminished some populations, there is now evidence indicating that this wild plant is a resilient species. “About half of the plants that we experimentally harvested from wild populations both in Kansas and Montana have resprouted, which is extraordinary,” Kelly said.
Quinn Long, a botanist in our program, has been researching echinacea alongside Kelly since he joined the Biological Survey six years ago. Before coming to KU, Quinn worked on a project for the Missouri Botanical Garden locating echinacea populations throughout the state of Missouri. In graduate school at KU, Quinn assisted with field work on the echinacea resprout study. “I remember revisiting the plots where echinacea had been harvested and, much to my surprise, finding narrow roots resprouting from the deeper, more mature plant roots,” he said.
To examine the abundance of this species in western Kansas, our team of botanists works with Dana Peterson, the geographic information systems coordinator for our medicinal plant program. Together, they calculate as precisely as possible where the E. angustifolia populations are located in Osborne, Russell and Ellis counties (all in the Smoky Hills region of Kansas) and to calculate the average density of echinacea populations there. These counties were chosen because they are part of the core 12-county area in North Central Kansas that makes up the largest high-density echinacea population known in the world and where the most wild harvesting is done. The researchers are attempting to calculate the number of plants per acre studied so that they can then extrapolate the information to the three counties and then the broader geographic region.
Dana uses soils data, climate data, topography and satellite imagery to develop a complex algorithm in the Arc GIS software. She uses this algorithm to estimate the likelihood that echinacea populations occur in a given location. She produces maps that display cropland, as well as areas of native rangeland predicted to exhibit absence, low density and high density of echinacea.
Our botanists visit the areas where Dana has mapped the probability of significant echinacea populations. They plan out the day’s route in order to visit as many sites as possible. They obtain permission in advance to visit these sites, most of which are on private property.
The botanists work in teams of two. When a team reaches a site, they mark off a 20- by 20-meter plot and divide it into four sections. The team then walks each section of the plot, counting and recording the number of juvenile, mature and flowering echinacea plants. This process is called “field proofing.” While the teams are in the field, they also take notes on the intensity of grazing and other disturbances. Using the data gathered from multiple plots, the botanists can verify the presence of the species and collect specific population data for Dana to input into the Arc GIS software.
Dana uses this field data to confirm echinacea locations. She then manipulates an algorithm in the Arc GIS software package to identify other areas of high population densities in the three counties. Factors that indicate high density are areas with shallow, rocky soils and low vegetation, usually located on a hillside. “This is a dynamic project in that our methods and approach change along the way, as we discover more about the data and the output,” Dana said.
E. angustifolia was collected this year and prepared for medicinal testing. Quinn said that further validation of the medicinal value of this species through medicinal chemistry research could help to sustain or increase the already extensive economic investment in echinacea by herbal products companies. “It could also be a positive thing for Kansas because Kansas is arguably the geographic center of abundance for this species,” he said.
Quinn believes echinacea has an economic niche in Native American, North American and European markets because of its name recognition. “Echinacea has emerged as the break-out star due to its merits and its charisma in the herbal arena,” he said, adding that, “even the cough drops in my backpack have echinacea in them.”
This ongoing research in Kansas on E. angustifolia over the past 20 years is contributing to greater knowledge of the plant, and it supports the claim that this species can be a sustainable resource for use in medicinal remedies. We chose this plant as the symbol for our program because of its widespread medicinal use by Plains Indians, its economical value in today’s world and its geographic range, which is centered in Kansas. Kelly, Quinn, Dana and others involved in this research hope to demonstrate that use of this species as medicine is not a way of the past, but a link between cultures of the past and present.
— Kim Scherman, undergraduate assistant, research and communications
Kindscher, K., D.M. Price, and L. Castle. 2008. “Re-sprouting of Echinacea angustifolia Augments Sustainability of Wild Medicinal Plant Populations.” Economic Botany 62(2):139-147.
Price, D.H. and K. Kindscher. 2007. “One Hundred Years of Echinacea angustifolia Harvest in the Smoky Hills of Kansas, USA.” Economic Botany 61:86-95.