Before Echinacea there was ‘Elk Root’

A THM Feature Article

Echinacea purpurea plantThe plant we know today as echinacea was called ‘elk root’ by Indian tribes of Middle America where the herb grew prolifically.

As was common long ago, humans gained much knowledge about medicinal plants by observing animals. The Native Americans noticed sick and wounded elk seeking out the plants and consuming them, so began utilizing ‘elk root’ themselves for various ailments. The Pawnee used it for headaches, the Kiowa and Cheyenne for coughs and sore throats, and many tribes including the Lakota used it for pain relief, mouth sores and infections.

The Dakotas even used it as a veterinary medicine for their horses!

According to Dennis Carey and Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, NC, the elk root plant that had been native medicine for hundreds of years was discovered by European explorers in the 17th century, arriving in England in 1699 via natural historian and theologian John Bannister, who had been sent to Virginia to study American flora and fauna.

 Over the years it was used in Europe to treat scarlet fever, syphilis, malaria, blood poisoning and diphtheria as well as common colds, flu and infections. The colorful purple flowers of the hardy perennial herb also made elk root an extremely popular ornamental plant throughout Europe.

In the 1880s elk root was introduced into U.S. medical practice and by the early 20th century it had become the top selling herb in America. However, with the discovery of penicillin and other ‘wonder drugs,’ echinacea was left in the dust—particularly after it was dismissed as “worthless” by the American Medical Association in the 1930s (

But Europeans, seeped in ancient cultures, were not as willing to dismiss the natural virtues of a traditional medicine plant as were the brash Americans, poised eagerly on the brink of the age of chemical medical miracles.

Germany, in particular, took the lead in developing the herb’s potential with Dr. Gerhard Madaus’ work in research and testing during the 1930s. In Germany today, the above ground parts of Echinacea purpurea are approved by the medical profession to treat colds, upper respiratory tract infections, urinary tract infections and slow-healing wounds. Also, in parts of Europe, echinacea is taken in an IV as supplemental treatment for some forms of cancer. Other European medical professionals actually use injections of echinacea to cure urinary tract infections.

Echinacea is a member of the common Asteraceae family, which includes such well-known varieties as daisies and sunflowers. The name echinacea comes from the Greek echinos, meaning hedgehog (because of its spiny center cone). Echinacea is also called purple coneflower, coneflower, black Sampson and red sunflower.

Three species of Echinacea are commonly used for medicinal purposes: Echinacea augustifolia, Echinacea pallida, and Echinacea purpurea. Some preparations combine more than one variety, or all parts of the plant, as the leaves, roots and flowers have all been found to have medicinal effects.

History usually repeats itself as enthusiasms wax and wane, and echinacea has once more bounced into popular use in the U.S.

Unquestioning confidence in chemicals is on the wane for many people, as evidence of their frequently harmful results has accumulated. Many people who have re-discovered traditional medicinal herbs use echinacea to shorten and reduce the severity of colds, flu, coughs and fevers.

But up until now, as the University of Maryland Medical Center notes, “most of the scientific research on echinacea has been conducted in Germany.”

UMM says laboratory and animal studies indicate that echinacea contains active substances that enhance the activity of the immune system, relieve pain, reduce inflammation and have hormonal, antiviral and antioxidant effects.

Those substances include polysaccharides (known to trigger the activity of the immune system), glycoproteins, alkamides, volatile oils and flavonoids. Wikipedia notes that “the constituent base for echinacea is complex, consisting of a wide variety of chemicals of variable effect and potency. Some chemicals may be directly antimicrobial, while others may work at stimulating or modulating different parts of the immune system.”

According to, echinacea stimulates the white blood cells which attack viruses and bacteria that lead to illness or infection.

Mike Adams, of explains that echinacea works against an enzyme called hyaluronidase that destroys the body’s defense against diseases. Echinacea is presently undergoing extensive study specifically for use in Aids patients who typically suffer from a much-weakened immune system.

The U.S. is lagging in using the advancement in science to study the healing components of traditional herbs.

This is not surprising as many, if not most, medicinal research is financed by the patent-obsessive and profitable chemical industry rather than by independent researchers with transparency freedom. As says, “echinacea is a very popular herbal remedy, but its full potential is not completely known by many in the medical profession.”

Obviously there’s a very profitable reason that the “full potential” of echinacea and many other herbs is not explored more. Natural herbs cannot be patented. However, more people every day are becoming aware that our long infatuation with chemical ‘miracles’ is wearing thin.

The recent findings by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine that Americans were the least healthy of 17 modern countries, and sinking every year, should tell us that all is not working well in our medical system. In fact, this news should be extremely alarming to our government health agencies and to the pharmaceutical and medical professions that claim they are trying to help us.

Advanced scientific technology has its place and can indeed work miracles in dire circumstances. But traditional and preventive medicine has its place too. Unfortunately, modern medicine is geared to providing relief for problems that have already occurred. Wouldn’t it be better to study and learn about a more natural way of life that prevents many problems from happening in the first place?

We can offer no better advice to individuals seeking better health through knowledge and action than that offered by the book Nature’s Pharmacy: Evidence-based Alternatives to Drugs, edited by Pamela Duff, RN, CSNC…

“Remember: herbs are medicines. They can interact with pharmaceutical medications. Therefore, just because they are listed as alternative, do not go out and try to replace what your doctor has already prescribed. Investigate everything you put into your mouth, whether it is medication, supplements, herbs, food or water. Then work with a professional to see if there are (natural) alternatives right for you.”

As UMM emphasizes, “The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease, (but herbs do not always take kindly to consorting with alien chemicals—and all herbal preparations are not equal). Buy only products made by reputable, established companies that distribute their products through trustworthy and knowledgeable establishments.”

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