A Modern History Of Echinacea

Echinacea (Ecky-nay-shea) is one of the best known herbal medicines in the UK. Many people know it helps the immune system in some way. This article will give you some idea as to its historical background.

The history of Echinacea use probably goes back thousands of years. The great majority of this history was lost as the peoples of North America were “overwhelmed”, by the new settlers from the east. But why would the medicines of savages be of any use to a civilised society of settlers anyway? A group of rather forward thinking medics called the Eclectics began experimenting and using the local medicines to good effect, Echinacea being one of their most successful.
The Eclectic medical movement started on the East Coast of the US in 1845, as a reaction to the practices of the medical establishment of the day. The founder was a chap called Wooster Beach. When Beach qualified as a Doctor, leeches, bleeding, purging, cautery and the use of heavy metals such as mercury and lead were some of the healing tools of the modern doctor. Sick patients were treated to within an inch of their life by being routinely bled, burnt and poisoned in an attempt to cure them. Dr Beach took issue with these practices, which he believed to be sick, perverted and against the laws of Nature. The Eclectics were hated by the modern medics of the day. The Eclectics set up their Institute in Ohio; this is where the modern history of Echinacea begins. Ohio is the home to all three most commonly mentioned species of Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea pallida) and this is where the Eclectics first experienced this plant. When the Eclectics arrived in the mid west they came into contact with people who gave them first hand accounts of the use of Echinacea. These people related stories of Echinacea in the treatment of infectious diseases, inflammations, rattlesnake bites, and slow healing wounds. At first the Eclectics used Echinacea angustifolia for the same diseases as the Native Americans, but over time its use was extended to an ever-growing list of conditions with varying success. The Eclectics were very thorough and they kept records, wrote books and documented carefully the knowledge they gained. They learned more about Echinacea than any other group, and they documented their knowledge meticulously. The Eclectics would have come into contact with the other 2 species of Echinacea, Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea pallida, but very little if anything is mentioned in Eclectic texts about them, it seems there was only one Echinacea for them, Echinacea angustifolia! Using Echinacea the Eclectics achieved 80-90 percent cure rates for infections prior to the age of antibiotics. The orthodox physicians had a 20 percent cure rate! This reputation to cure the “incurable” made the Eclectics popular with the people but unpopular with ordinary doctors. Sadly there was no spirit of co-operation between these 2 rival schools. The advent of antibiotics in the 1930’s signalled a loss of popularity in the use of Echinacea. Antibiotics would have an almost 100 percent cure rate compared with the 85 percent that Echinacea had. Between the 1930’s and 1960’s the only people who kept the Echinacea light burning were the ageing Eclectics and as the years passed there were fewer and fewer left practising or indeed living. In this period the entire focus of medicine was on antibiotics, plants previously used to treat infection were dropped. With no one to buy the herbs the suppliers then stopped supplying or growing herbs since there was no incentive as there was no market.
In the 1960’s – 1970’s the research world was interested in treatments for cancer. Many medicinal plants were researched especially any with “immune stimulant” properties. Echinacea was studied to a limited extent, but Echinacea was not being used to any great extent to treat anything.
Disenchantment with the medical establishment in the 1980’s saw the re-emergence of Echinacea. The renaissance came as serious drawbacks had been encountered in the use of antibiotics and the development of resistant strains of bacteria, and side effects of antibiotics. In 1979 Echinacea was a minor product in 2006 estimated sales in the UK were £30m and $129m in the US.
Whilst the bulk of Echinacea for sale in the UK today is Echinacea purpurea, you will find that reputable herbalists do sell Echinacea angustifolia, it is worth searching out as it really is the only one with well documented evidence of traditional use. The possible reason for the decline in Echinacea angustifolia usage is probably because Echinacea purpurea is easier to grow and this is a real benefit as you have to wait atleast 3-4 years before the root is sufficiently developed enough to harvest.

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Further Reading

Echinacea:The plant that boosts your immune system. By Douglas Schar (1999) Published by Souvenir Press