Notes on Plants: Echinacea

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Known to many as the Coneflower, others as the Samson root or Missouri Snakeroot, this native of the North American prairies is found in many a British garden’s late summer border or wildlife garden. Despite its popularity as an ornamental plant it has a history of medicinal uses by the native American population dating back many centuries, who used it as an all purpose antiseptic. The Sioux used it as a cure for snake bite, the Cheyenne chewed the root to quench their thirst. As Europeans colonised North America, they learnt the plants medicinal uses. Echinacea based remedies were commercially produced by pharmaceutical companies being particularly popular in the 1930’s until antibiotics became widely available.

The bristly seed head or cone at the centre of the flower inspired its botanical name, from the Greek for hedgehog, echinos. Three varieties are recognised to have medicinal properties: Echinacea augustifolia, Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea pallida. The extract of the root is most commonly sold, to reduce the severity and duration of colds and flu. Claims for Echinacea treating boils, wounding healing, fevers, upper respiratory infections, urinary infections such as Candida albicans, and protecting the immune system during chemotherapy, are being researched. However the results can be contradictory from different research papers, even into Echinacea’s use to treat colds. References to recent studies can be found through the Wellcome Library’s subscription to AMED (Allied & Complementary Medicine), available remotely to Wellcome Library card holders. More information on Echinacea from a wide variety of resources, often available in full text can be found on Health Reference Centre Academic, also available remotely.

Author: Simon Warburton

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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