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An Unusual Sales Pitch
In the 1870s, Dr. Meyer created an Echinacea-based patent medicine, Meyer's Blood Purifier. In order to persuade prospective customers of its curative powers, he would offer to let himself be bitten by a rattlesnake! This marketing ploy may be the origin of the English phrase "snake-oil salesman".
E. pallida is native to southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and also to prairie lands in the central U.S. The other two species are native to the U.S. prairies, with E. angustifolia distributed from the Mississippi Valley west to the Rocky Mountains, and E. purpurea growing in most eastern states as well.
History and traditional uses
Prairie First Nations used coneflower for many different medicinal purposes, including the treatment of headaches, toothaches, and swollen glands, as well as for insect bites and stings.
Settlers adopted the plant as a remedy for a wide range of ills, both for themselves and for their livestock. By the late 1800s, coneflower had become one of North America's most commonly used medicinal plants.
For much of the 1900s, North American interest in the medicinal use of coneflower declined, but considerable research into its properties was done in Europe, especially in Germany. The results of this research, along with the general resurgence of interest in herbal products, led to renewed North American use in the late 1900s.
Current findings and new possibilities
In the 1990s, Echinacea was thought to be a general immune system booster and useful for preventing colds. More recent research suggests, however, that this is not the case.
Instead of preventing colds, Echinacea seems to be useful for treating them - for reducing the length and severity of the symptoms once a cold has been caught. Research continues into this and other possible uses.
Researchers are also trying to sort out the variations in chemical composition among the three species. One of the problems that has plagued past Echinacea studies is that different species and parts of plants were used in tests as if they were identical and interchangeable, which may not be the case.
In the Canadian garden
Echinacea purpurea is a popular garden perennial, available from many suppliers and relatively easy to grow from seed. It reaches a height of about 1 metre in the sun and well-drained soil it prefers, and is prized for its drought-tolerance, cold-hardiness, handsome late summer blooms of pink or white, and interesting conical seed heads.
The other Echinacea species are more difficult to obtain, but are sometimes available from specialty suppliers of plants or seeds.
Commercial growing and harvesting
Much of the Echinacea harvested in North America is gathered from the wild in the United States. In Canada, Echinacea is cultivated on a small scale, with the principal producers located in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Ontario.
The Canadian wild populations of Echinacea are small and scattered. Preserving them is important, not only for their own sake, but, because they have adapted to the Canadian climate, and so may be useful for breeding hardier strains of coneflower for commercial cultivation in Canada.