Enigmatic Echinacea: Consumers’ on-again, off-again relationship with a Prairie herb

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

I set out to photograph flowers. I may have been distracted by the bumble bees. No regrets. Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

This is a story of colds, flus, and the hope that their annoying symptoms will one day disappear. From patent medicine hacks to million dollar profits, it’s the story of Echinacea.

This purple Prairie plant is mainly marketed as a remedy for cold and flu symptoms. It is also one of the most popular herbal remedies sold in North America today. And it’s native to Canada!

Tiny hedgehog

Chances are you’ve probably seen Echinacea growing in a garden or along the side of a road. In addition to being herbal remedies, they’re also eye-catching flowers that are easy to grow.

Wonder where the complicated name comes from? It’s the Latin name of the genus, or species group. Echinacea comes from the Greek word for hedgehog, and refers to the flower’s spiny centre. Each ‘spine’ is actually a tiny flower, with its own reserves of nectar and pollen. Like sunflowers and daisies, the flower head is actually made up of dozens disk florets in the centre. The purple petal-like things are ray florets, tiny flowers with one huge petal.

Prairie power

In Canada, Echinacea grows wild in the Prairies of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It does what it can to get by, enduring drought, humidity, and low-quality soil. It blooms from June to August, and is pollinated by bees, wasps and butterflies.

Indigenous medicine cabinet

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

For over 400 years, Echinacea was used by Great Plains indigenous peoples to treat a variety of infections. European settlers on the prairies followed their example, using the plant as a cure-all for humans and even cattle. In 1897 students made extra money by gathering wild Echinecea, and by 1917 the herb was being recommended by American doctors.

The road to international fame

Echinacea went on to gain international fame and fortune, but it didn’t happen overnight. European doctors had their own medicinal plants, and little interest in finding new ones.

Echinacea was first introduced to Europe by patent medicine salesman H. C. F. Meyer, who sold Echinacea in the U.S. as a cure or just about everything, including snakebites. With hopes of expanding his market, Meyer sent samples to England for testing. The British scientists quickly learned that Echinacea didn’t do most of the things Meyer claimed it did. However, they were intrigued by its possible immune-system boosting powers, and the rest is history. In the 18th and 19th centuries Echinacea became a popular herb for treating scarlet fever, syphilis, malaria, blood poisoning, diphtheria. It probably didn’t work, but that’s what it was used for.

The fall from glory

The dramatic popularity of Echinacea led to over-harvesting of the wild plants. Fortunately for the flowers, in 1950 antibiotics were introduced and became all the rage. Echinacea fell out of favor, mainly because there was little scientific evidence that it had medicinal powers.

However, not everyone had given up on Echinacea. Research on Echinacea’s powers continued in Germany, where there were more liberal laws on the use of medicinal plants and more appetite for research. Today there are over 800 Echinacea products in Germany alone.

The cold-buster

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

In the 1970s and 80s, North American consumers realized that modern medicine couldn’t solve everything. Take the common cold. On average, adults get 3 to 4 colds a year, and kids get twice that many. Because there are 200 or so different viruses that can cause colds, there is no medical cure. Alternative medicines and herbal remedies to treat colds and flus regained popularity. Today Echinecea is touted as an immune-system booster that can prevent or treat cold symptoms, with estimated yearly sales in the tens of millions.

Does it work?

The short answer is we don’t know. Some studies say yes, others say no. The U.S. National Institutes of Health gives a tentative ‘maybe’ that Echinacea could be effective for treating the common cold and vaginal yeast infections.
Part of the problem is we haven’t figured out exactly how Echinacea works. It seems to decrease inflammation (swelling) but we don’t know what chemical is responsible. When you’re working with plant extracts that contain hundreds of different chemicals, it’s hard to say which is doing what.

One reason science haven’t given us a definitive answer is that the studies so far have used different species, different doses and different products. Part of the problem is the lack of standardization in the Echinecea marketplace. Some treatments can be 1,000 times stronger than others, and consumer reports have identified some products that don’t even contain Echinacea.

Regardless of what the science says, people still swear by it. Health authorities in Canada and the U.S. tell consumers that Echinacea is safe if they follow the directions on the bottle. If you’re allergic to other plants in the daisy family, like ragweed or marigolds, you may be allergic to this too. Also, Echinacea may interact with some medications, so make sure your doctor knows you’re taking it.

Farming a wild plant

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

Small scale Echinacea farms have sprung up in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, BC, and Alberta, but don’t produce enough to keep up with the growing demand. Before cultivation can go large-scale, researchers and farmers need to better understand Echinacea’s habits, fertilizer needs and diseases. It takes a while to figure out how to farm a wild plant, just ask Saskatoon berry farms. Echinacea in Canada is mainly harvested for the roots, which take 2-3 years to get big enough to gather.

Now you have something to think about next time you see this spiky, purple beauty.

References

http://www.britannica.com/plant/Echinacea

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/new-natural-common-cold-cures/

https://nccih.nih.gov/health/echinacea/ataglance.htmhttp://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/981.html

https://nccih.nih.gov/about/offices/od/2010-12.htm

http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/monoReq.do?id=80&lang=eng

http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/dhp-mps/prodpharma/applic-demande/guide-ld/label-etiquet-pharm/echinace-eng.php

http://www.botanicalgarden.ubc.ca/potd/2014/01/echinacea-purpurea.phphttp://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=c5804

http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/echinacea

http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/echinacea-purpurea-eastern-purple-coneflower

http://kindscher.faculty.ku.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Kindscher-1989-Ethnobotany-of-Purple-Conflower.pdf

http://www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/crops/production/print,echinacea.html

http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex578

http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/about-us/offices-and-locations/canada-saskatchewan-irrigation-diversification-centre/canada-saskatchewan-irrigation-diversification-centre-publications/production-practices-for-echinacea-angustifolia/?id=1193337467277

http://www.agriculture.gov.sk.ca/Default.aspx?DN=7c8fbf9f-10ad-4ffd-a4f9-780db93ee478

Titillating Trilliums

Trillium colonies can get huge, but that doesn't mean you should pick them. Photo by Captain Tenneal. Trillium. CC. https://flic.kr/p/6spWeN

Trillium colonies can get huge, but that doesn’t mean you should pick them. Photo by Captain Tenneal. Trillium. CC. https://flic.kr/p/6spWeN

Me: Oh wow, the trilliums are really carpeting this maple grove today. I should pick one for Mom. Surely one bloom can’t hurt…

Trillium: That’s what you think!

Me: Oh, hello. Sorry, I didn’t realize you were a talking flower. I seem to be running into a lot lately.

T: Spare me the pleasantries. Just get your fingers away from my stem!

M: I don’t see what the big deal is. I mean, it’s just one flower. It will fade in a few days anyways. What’s the harm?

T: First of all, it’s my sexual organ. How would you like someone pulling off yours?

M: Eww, I’d never thought of it like that.

T: I’m not finished! It took me seven years to grow this blossom. Seven. Years. What have you accomplished in that time?

M: Well, I got a biology degree…Wait a minute. Seven years? How is that possible? I thought plants flowered every year.

T: Not trilliums.

M: But seven years, isn’t that a little excessive?

T: We’re pretty slow growing, and we like it that way. It gives us time to scope the place out. In addition, our seeds are pretty needy. We don’t start to grow unless the soil is really moist, and we’ll wait as long as we have to.

M: What happens during those seven pre-flower years?

T: Year one is roots, year two is an embryonic leaf, and year three is the real leaf. Around year five I get one of those voluptuous three-lobed leaves. You have no idea how good that feels.

M: I guess I wouldn’t. But now that you flower every year, what’s stopping me from picking the blossom?

T: Geez, you just won’t let it drop, will you? Okay, I confess, the real problem isn’t actually the flower. It’s the leaf.

M: Really?

T: Yes. It’s very hard to pick the flower without damaging the leaf, which happens to be my only source of food via photosynthesis. Remember how it takes me a full year to grow this thing? If I’m leafless for a year, I can’t make food to get me through the winter. A picked leaf is a death sentence.

M: Gosh, I didn’t realize!

T: Humans rarely do.

M: So what kind of trillium are you, exactly?

T: I’m Trillium grandiflorum, the big white-flowered one. I’m also Ontario’s provincial flower.

M: You seem to be a little bit pink. You’re not a love child between one of these white trilliums and red trilliums, are you?

T: Nope. I’m Trillium grandiflorum through and through. Our petals turn pink as they age. They last up to several weeks, not like those weakling tulips.

M: I see you’re surrounded by dozens of other trilliums. Is each flower an individual plant?

T: You bet.

M: Why do you all live so close together? Don’t you have to compete for nutrients and sunlight?

T: First of all, I’m kind of like a vampire. I don’t like light. I will silently scream in full sunlight. So clear-cutting my forests is bad. It wipes out my colony completely.

M: But why grow in colonies?

T: Well, to tell you the truth, it’s because we have a bit of dispersal problem. While other plants spread their seeds around using birds or the wind, ours are spread by ants. And ants don’t go very far.

M: How do you convince the ants to carry your seeds?

T: Sheer chemical trickery. Half the seed is an elaiosome, or oily appendage. These ant-snacks smell like the insect corpses that ants love to eat.

M: Lovely.

T: Tell me about it. Sometimes the ants are so hungry they break into the fruit and take their seeds back to the nest. They eat their fake dead-insect, then leave the seed to germinate in a tunnel. Nice and buried in the moist earth.

M: Is there anything else that puts you in danger, other than leaf-picking humans and clear-cutting?

T: Deer are not immune to our charms. We get munched on by them a lot. Just the price you pay for being an adorable early-riser in the spring when there’s not much to eat. But if they graze on me to much, they will kill me.

M: Ouch.

T: Yep, if there are lots of deer in area, we can die out within 12 years.

M: That’s awful!

T: Yes, but they did save our butts during the ice age, according to trillium lore.

M: How did they do that?

T: In the ice age it was way too cold for us to grow in Ontario and Quebec. Deer swallowed our seeds and carried them southward in their intestines. Not the most luxurious way to travel, but hey, at least now we’re here to tell the tale.

M: You’ve given me a lot to think about next time I see a trillium.

T: And no picking?

M: No picking, I promise.

References

http://www.ont-woodlot-assoc.org/sw_woodlandplants.html
http://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/Cotyledon
http://ontariowildflowers.com/main/species.php?id=714
http://www.northernontarioflora.ca/description.cfm?speciesid=1002574
http://sunsite.ualberta.ca/Projects/Plant_Watch/plants/whi_tri.php
http://sunsite.ualberta.ca/Projects/Plant_Watch/plants/whi_tri.php
http://www.canada.com/victoriatimescolonist/news/homes/story.html?id=fe609c69-0258-444d-9617-1d59d9f89b64
http://www.louistheplantgeek.com/a-gardening-journal/675-trillium-grandiflorum

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