What Is Echinacea?

Dig into Echinacea and you’ll find that this perennial’s charm is more than petal deep.

'Magnus' Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea 'Magnus')

'Magnus' Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea 'Magnus')

'Magnus' enhances the classic beauty of purple coneflower with deeper petals hues and a flatter, daisy-like flower form.

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What is Echinacea good for? In the landscape, it’s a great go-to plant for easy-care beauty. This is a low-maintenance perennial that’s a native plant—growing naturally in the eastern half of the country, from Maine to Florida and west to Wisconsin, Colorado and Texas. Several species of Echinacea occur, including purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Tennessee coneflower (Echinacea tennesseensis) and yellow coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa).

Coneflowers open eye-catching blooms that feature a spiky cone center surrounded by colorful petals. The spiky, coppery-orange globe looks prickly to the touch, but only offers firm resistance when touched with bare fingers. It’s those spiky flower centers that earn these pretty native plants their name. In the Greek, the word “echinos” means hedgehog, which explains the genus name Echinacea.

Echinacea is adaptable in the garden and drought-tolerant once established. It grows well in fertile, well-drained or average garden soil, as well as in rocky, shallow and clay soils. Plants flower best in full sun. Echinacea plants make a terrific addition to rain gardens or butterfly gardens. Butterflies can’t resist the nectar-rich blooms. After flowers fade and seeds ripen, birds flock to garden to feast on Echinacea seeds.

Echinacea is more than a great garden plant. It also has a history of being used as a traditional herbal remedy. Echinacea was used by Native Americans, pioneers and is also used by some modern herbalists for its possible ability to treat wounds and potentially boost the immune system. These groups rely primarily on purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and narrow-leaf coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) for medicinal properties. In both of these Echinacea species, roots, leaves, stems and flowers are used in varying proportions to create herbal tinctures and extracts.

Individuals have claimed a variety of health benefits from using Echinacea. Some have purported that Echinacea can treat maladies from skin conditions like eczema, and have claimed that it can reduce inflammation and might also diminish the effects of respiratory issues, including the flu and the common cold. Though the medical community has not definitively confirmed the effectiveness of such uses of Echinacea, many herbalists and natural remedy enthusiasts have claimed Echinacea’s benefits in—if not eradicating colds and flu—then at least potentially lessening their symptoms. Echinacea supporters believe that this plant can kick a cold out of the body in shorter order than if Echinacea isn’t taken. Many medical professionals believe otherwise. Research studies exist to support both viewpoints.

The Native Americans and early settlers relied on Echinacea to treat many conditions including toothache, coughs, snake bites and weeping wounds. The Cheyenne and Kiowa tribes counted on Echinacea to treat coughs and sore throats, while the Lakota used it as a painkiller. For the Pawnee, Echinacea was the treatment of choice for headaches, while the Choctaw harvested Echinacea for coughs and gastrointestinal issues.

Modern studies have suggested that Echinacea works by boosting the body’s natural immune system and can be effective against viruses. It has been claimed that Echinacea can also increase amounts of immune-fighting agents in the body, including interferon and interleukin. Some herbalists recommend using Echinacea in combination with goldenseal or vitamin C to enhance the healing results.

Editor's Note: This article is not intended as medical advice. Always consult a professional healthcare provider before trying any form of therapy or if you have any questions or concerns about a medical condition. The use of natural products can be toxic if misused, and even when suitably used, certain individuals could have adverse reactions.

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