KU Researcher’s Book Explores History Of Native Plains Healer, Echinacea

Jan 26, 2017

Echinacea has become one of the more common natural remedies for colds, but the herb has deep roots across many cultures in the Great Plains, used at times to treat everything from burns to toothaches to snake bites.

The history of the flowering plant commonly known as “purple coneflower” is the subject of the newly-published book “Echinacea: Herbal Medicine with a Wild History” by University of Kansas biology professor Kelly Kindscher.

Kindscher’s says his lifelong study of native medical plant has always been conducted with scientific skepticism, but he admits to being somewhat of a cheerleader for the medicinal potential of Echinacea.

“Wow, we’re overlooking a plant that’s native, that’s a Kansas/Missouri plant that does work for many people,” Kindscher tells Central Standard host Gina Kaufmann. “Gosh, we could have healthcare costs. Why aren’t we doing more with this?”

He writes that the plant, which thrives especially in western Kansas, was once the most widely-used medicine among Great Plains native groups — used by at least 16 different tribes.

On their legendary expedition, Lewis and Clark sent seed and roots of the acclaimed healing plant back to Thomas Jefferson for study.

Kindscher himself has witnessed mainstream demand for the plant fuel a small army of people harvesting the plant from the wild for use in commercial products.

Though it has plenty of champions, scientists have struggled to demonstrate Echinacea lives up to its hype.

Kindscher describes as “mixed but positive” the limited amount of high-quality research that has been done on its effectiveness at reducing the length and severity of colds.

He says studying Echinacea is complicated because its concentration and quality of active ingredients vary from plant specimen to plant specimen and because individuals respond to it differently.

Translating traditional knowledge to the scientific realm can also be difficult, as Kindscher has found when interviewing Native Americans about their use of Echinacea.  

He says interview subjects have told him it’s not the plant itself but its ‘spirit’ that heals illness, making both talking about and measuring therapeutic effectiveness difficult.

Alex Smith is a health reporter for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @AlexSmithKCUR.