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The sustainability of echinacea within herbal medicine

  • Jonas Brab
    Jonas Brab

    Jonas is a medical herbalist, and in this role he sees clients, teaches aspects of herbal medicine at The School of Herbal Medicine and works for Organic Herb Trading, where he produces tinctures and infused oils.

    Before becoming a medical herbalist, Jonas completed a BSc in forest
    science and forest ecology. For many years, he has been interested in
    matters of sustainability and in finding solutions for the challenges we face today.

    Through first-hand experience, Jonas has been able to explore many different ways of relating with the more than human world, be it through growing vegetables and herbs, wood working, bee keeping, bird watching, camping, basket making, leather tanning, or other natural crafts. Inspired by his own love for nature and natural crafts he worked in outdoor education for many years, bringing nature closer to children of all ages.

    Through his work with Organic Herb Trading, he has gained many insights into the global matters of the herbal trade and he is keen to raise awareness around sustainability within Herbal Medicine.

  • 10:28 reading time (ish)
  • Immunity Sustainability & Social Welfare Western Herbal Medicine

Echinacea is one of the most popular herbal medicines, but its popularity has come at a cost. This article shares sustainability issues around the precious medicinal echinacea species.

From local to global medicinal herb

Echinacea is a genus of flowering plants in the daisy family. The name Echinacea comes from the Greek ekhinos and means “sea urchin”, inspired by the spiky cones that hold the seeds. The genus encompasses 9 different species, of which three are well-known around the world for their medicinal use, namely E. angustifolia, E. purpurea and E. palluda. Although now world-famous, Echinacea species originally only grew in eastern and central North America, where they grow in moist to dry prairies and open wooded areas.

The sustainability of echinacea within herbal medicine

Echinacea species were widely used by the indigenous people of the Great Plains and the Midwest of America. The use of this plant was first recorded by Europeans during an expedition between 1804 – 1806(1). The indigenous people used the root and herb, fresh and dried for a variety of ailments, covering snake bites, infections and inflammatory conditions such as cold, flu and rheumatism. The European settlers who learned about the uses of Echinacea spp adopted its use as an ailment and by the 1880s, the herb, commonly known as Snakebite was widely known and large-scale production of Echinacea tinctures was proliferating. Fast forward to the 1990s,  100 years later and Echinacea spp are well known around the world with an ever-increasing demand. As a consequence, Echinacea spp are now being cultivated for their use (2).

In 2010 the total sales value of Echinacea products in the United States was estimated to be $10,914,500 (3). The American Herbal Product Association did a survey to record the harvest of various plant species, comparing wild harvested and cultivated sources. They list results from 23 primary raw material producers and although this may not cover all of the firms that are involved in wild harvesting and cultivation of medicinal herbs may still give an indication for the scale of harvest of E. species (4). In 2010 alone, 24 tonnes of E. angustifolia root was wild harvested, and approximately 44 tonnes were sourced from cultivation. E. purpurea is more often cultivated, and in 2010 94.4 tonnes of root from cultivated plants were sold. 

The two species differ in habitat and growing requirements, which may explain the different numbers in regards to wild harvest and cultivation. E. angustifolia is at home in the prairie and prefers very well draining soils. It is drought-resistant but copes less well with too much moisture. Once germinated plants develop their first leaves and will often stay at this stage for the first growing year. E. angustifolia plants generally take a few years to mature, during which they develop a tap root that can grow 2m down into the ground. This enables plants a chance to regrow if only the first 6in have been harvested, as is often done by Echinacea harvesters. E. purpurea grows in moister woodland habitats and does not form a tap root, but spreads out instead. It is easier transplanted and easier cultivated in less dry areas of the world, which may be why it is more often grown.

Jonas Brab

Jonas is a medical herbalist, and in this role he sees clients, teaches aspects of herbal medicine at The School of Herbal Medicine and works for Organic Herb Trading, where he produces tinctures and... Read more

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