Although Echinacea is now very well-known, it is essentially a new remedy. Many herbs with as powerful effects as Echinacea have been known throughout the world for centuries, but this wonderful remedy came into prominence during the last century with the Eclectic school and cannot be found in the ancient herbals.
Except where noted, the information in this newsletter comes from an excellent little book, Echinacea Exalted… See bibliography,
There are several species in the genus Echinacea, and many of them are used medicinally, although the pallida is also used, sometimes being considered a sub-species of the angustifolia. The purpurea has also been frequently used medicinally. We will mention other species in the section on Related Plants; the above are the commonest medicinal species.
The American Indians of the Great Plains and adjacent areas used Echinacea as a plant for many ailments. In addition to the medicinal uses of the Indians, the dried flowerheads were used by tribes of the Missouri River region–specifically, the Meskwaki and Kiowa–as hair combs. Children of the Pawnee tribe used the dried flower stalks for a game in which two stalks were whirled around one another.
Medicinally, Echinacea seems to have been one of the foremost medicinal plants for the American Indians, although our history of it is fragmented, because information has only been collected since the Indians were driven onto reservations. However, Gilmore in his Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region said, “Echinacea seems to have been used as a remedy for more ailments than any other plant.” The Cheyenne used the leaves and roots as a tea for sore throats, gums, and mouth, also chewing the roots for the same ailments. An infusion of the root was rubbed on sore necks. The Crows used the fresh root for toothache pain. The Comanches used the root for toothache and sore throats. A juice from the root was used for colds and colic. The Meskwaki used the root tea for stomach cramps. They also used the root tea for “fits” in combination with other herbs. Montana Indians chewed the flower–fresh or dry–to increase saliva flow. They also used the herb externally as a snake bite remedy, as did the Sioux, who used the fresh root to treat hydrophobia and septic conditions.
The Omaha Poncas used Echinacea as a basic herb for a variety of ailments. The fresh root was placed on toothaches until the pain subsided. It was used on enlarged glands–like mumps. A smoke fumigant of Echinacea was used to treat headaches, snakebite, stings, poisonous conditions and distemper in horses. Externally the juice of the root was used to bathe burns and to make the intense heat of the sweat house more bearable. Jugglers were said to have bathed their arms and hands in the juice of the plant so that they could take a piece of meat from a boiling pot with their bare hands without experiencing pain. A Winnebago Indian told Gilmore that he used the plant to make his mouth insensible to heat so that he could take a live coal in his mouth for show. The Omaha-Ponca used the plant as an eye wash. The Kiowa chewed the ground root and slowly swallowed the juice for coughs and sore throats. It has been reported that the Indians used Echinacea for more than one hundred types of cancer. The Oglaga Dakota used the root internally for toothache and bad colds. It was also used for mumps, measles, rheumatism, arthritis and smallpox. It was used by the Delaware for advanced venereal disease. The Choctaw chewed the root for bad colds accompanied by dyspepsia.
Considering its widespread use by the Indians, we will not be surprised to learn the Echinacea became a popular herb among the early settlers. Echinacea species were known by the common names Indian head, scurvy root, Black Sampson, niggerhead, comb flower, hedgehog, red sunflower, and purple coneflower. It was used in folk medicine as an aid in nearly all kinds of sickness and fed to ailing stock.
However, it was not until Gray’s Synoptical Flora of North America (1870) that the plant was mentioned medicinally as a “popular medicine.” There is no mention of it in the medical literature prior to Drs. Meyers and King. Their story is an interesting one. Dr. H. F. C. Meyers of Pawnee City, Nebraska had for many years been using the plant without knowing its botanical position. In a letter to Professor King of the Eclectic School, he explained his uses for the drug, as he had employed it for sixteen years. He claimed that it was an antispasmodic and antidote for blood-poisoning. He had been using it in a secret mixture with wormwood and hops–naming this mixture “Meyer’s Blood Purifier.” He claimed that this mixture was an antidote for the bites of various insects and especially of the rattlesnake. Meyer stated that he had even allowed a rattler to bite him, after which he bathed the part with some of the tincture, took a dram of it internally and laid down and slept; when he awoke, the swelling had entirely disappeared (Felk:672). Professor King recorded that Dr. Meyer kindly offered to send him a rattler eight feet long to test the tincture on dogs, rabbits, etc., but “having no friendship for the reptile and being unaccustomed to handling this poisonous ophidian, the generous offer was courteously declined” (Ibid).
In the autumn of 1885, Meyer sent it to Professor J. U. Lloyd of Cincinnati, who was the president of the American Pharmaceutical Association in 1887-8 and the founder of Lloyd Brothers Pharmaceutical Firm, which specialized in preparations from American plants. He was also a prolific author who left quite a literary legacy on American medicinal plants. Meyer wished to identify the plant so that he could sell it to Dr. King. Professor Lloyd, somewhat skeptical of Meyer’s claims, wrote to him that he couldn’t name the plant from the root only, so Meyer sent him, after another shipment of the root, a specimen plant, which his brother identified as Echinacea angustifolia.
Dr. King proposed to investigate the plant, although Meyer’s claims somewhat prejudiced Lloyd against it. Meyer’s label on his Blood Purifier read:
(front label) “Take one ounce three times every day in the following cases: Rheumatism, sick headache, erysipelas, dyspepsia, old sores, and piles, open wounds, dizziness, scrofula, and sore eyes.
In cases of poisoning by herbs and c., take the double dose, and bites of rattlesnakes take three ounces three times a day till the swelling is gone. This is an absolute cure within 24 hours.”
(back label) “This is a powerful drug as an alterative and antiseptic in all tumorous and syphilitic indications; old chronic wounds, such as fever sores, old ulcers, carbuncles, plies, eczema, wet or dry, can be cured quick and active; also Erysipelas. It will not fall in gangrene. In fever it is a specific; typhoid can be adverted in two or three days; also in Malaria, malignant, remittent and mountain fever it is a specific. It relieves pain, swelling and inflammation, by local use, internal and external. It has not and will not fall to cure diphtheria quick. It cures bites from the bee to the rattlesnake, it is a specific. Has been tested in more than fifty cases of mad dog bites in human and in every case prevented hydrophobia. It is perfectly harmless, internal and external.”
Such extravagant claims classed it with other nostrums of the day which were not cure-alls at all. However, Dr. King was willing to experiment with the herb. Two years after beginning his investigation, he wrote an article on its therapeutic qualities which appeared in the 1887 Eclectic Medical Journal. He found that many of Meyer’s claims were true, from this initial investigation, and indicated that if even half of them were true, that this would be an herb of significant value. Lloyd continued his skepticism until Dr. King’s researches began to prove indisputably the excellence of the herb. Perhaps the most convincing test for the herb came in King’s own home. His wife had been suffering from cancer for many years, for which King had attempted to treat her with various remedies but with little success. Finally he tried Echinacea, which both he and Mrs. King claimed produced her only relief. Mrs. King told Lloyd that whenever she stopped using Echinacea, her symptoms intensified, and she kept it by her till her dying day.
After King’s vindication of Echinacea, it grew popular among Eclectic physicians. Such extravagant claims were made for it–although most of them were verified and will be discussed below-that the medical establishment undertook to prove it valueless and published several articles to discredit it. However, despite their denunciations, Echinacea became an extremely popular plant, for many years one of the most widely sold medicines made out of an American plant. It was listed in the National Formulary, though in a very limited way; as Felter notes, “The first notices concerning Echinacea are from Eclectic physicians, and the drug is, from start to finish, an Eclectic medicine” (Felk:671).
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Used by permission, Dr. Christopher’s Newsletters – Volume 6 Number 12