The Wild Gardener

For years, gardeners have loved the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). These stalwart plants have decorated borders, flowerbeds and wildflower collections for so long it’s easy to forget they’re native Americans. Their range covers a lot of territory in the Midwest, the east-central United States, and locally in Burke, Jackson, Mecklenburg, Polk and Rutherford counties. In fact, the purple coneflower is so popular in gardens that it has given rise to a number of cultivars, including ‘Bravado’, ‘White Swan’ and ‘Magnus’.

Recently the Tennessee coneflower (Echinacea tennesseensis) and the yellow coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida) have begun their climb out of obscurity and into the nursery limelight. The paradox in the scientific name applies to the yellow petals (or, more correctly, ray flowers), not to be confused with the tiny yellow petals of the disk florets.

Of course, the American Indians knew all about the medicinal qualities of this great plant genus, including its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, whether taken in pill form or in tea. Studies now under way will probably confirm its use as an immune-system booster.

These plants were also used as painkillers and to treat coughs, toothaches, sore throats, infections and snakebites. In addition, the ground-up roots were applied directly to bites, burns, stings and infected wounds.

Centuries-old samples of coneflowers have been unearthed at American Indian archaeological sites; purple coneflowers, in particular, were prized by early Americans as one of the best herbal plants in their wellness arsenal.

Over the past decade, however, all the echinaceas have turned into herbal wonders, with the whole plants, roots, flowers and seeds being used to produce powdered supplements and tinctures, including various unions with zinc, goldenseal or vitamin C.

And there continue to be horror stories about unscrupulous collectors raping and pillaging vast stands of coneflowers of whatever species, showing little regard for how common or rare they are. Now, with coneflowers in such demand, they’re produced throughout the United States, New Zealand and British Columbia. The dormant roots are gathered in late fall or early winter, while the aboveground parts are harvested two to three times a year.

Hopefully such unrestricted collecting will cease with time.

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