By Steve Zimmerman
Long before healthcare insurance, large medical facilities, and corner pharmacies, how did we treat what ailed us? For centuries, we relied on the treatment of illnesses directly from Mother Nature. We took a walk in the woods or a field, or we collected what was needed from our perennial/herb garden. We brewed teas and made tinctures or poultices to treat our ailments. Many of the plants once used as medicine are still present in our gardens today.
One such plant that is very popular in today’s gardens is echinacea or purple coneflower. Native to the United States, echinacea is an herbaceous flowering plant that is a member of the daisy family (Asteraceae), and it can still be found growing wild in some locations. Its name is derived from the Greek word echino, meaning hedgehog, and refers to the spiny central disk of the bloom of the coneflower that resembles the hedgehog’s fur.
Echinacea was used as a general cure-all by our native ancestors for more than 400 years. Legend has it that very early Native Americans observed poor and sickly herd animals searching out echinacea for grazing, and this started the long history of its medicinal use. In the 19th and 20th centuries, European settlers were introduced to the plant by Native Americans and used it to treat scarlet fever, diphtheria, and syphilis.
Today, throughout the United States and Europe, echinacea is used as an herbal remedy to help boost the immune system to fight against colds, the flu, and minor infections. Echinacea is usually taken in tea form or in gel capsules. While the entire plant is said to contain active ingredients that boost immunity, many believe the root is the most effective part of the plant. A number of studies are available on the effects of using echinacea; some conclude it does nothing at all, but others state it can actually reduce the chances of catching a cold by more than 50 percent. One study found that taking echinacea shortens the duration of a cold. All I know for certain is that I enjoy hot echinacea tea with a dash of honey.
Its health benefits aside, echinacea is truly a beautiful perennial that adds outstanding color to the garden. The most common color is purple; however, white, yellow, and pink varieties are available today. Echinacea typically grows 3 feet tall, but some of the new hybrids are only half that height. They like full sun and will grow in poor soil as long as it is well drained. Echinacea is drought resistant and requires very little maintenance once established. It is pest and disease resistant as well. You can expect lots of visitors to a thriving patch of echinacea, including butterflies, bees, and maybe even a few hummingbirds. They also make a very nice cut flower for an indoor arrangement.
So, why not enjoy both echinacea in your garden and in a nice cup of tea? I can’t confirm that echinacea tea really boosts immunity or not, but I am quite certain that the beauty it brings to my garden boosts my spirits!
Steve and Laurie Zimmerman have owned and operated Zimmerman’s Azalea Gardens and Landscaping in Adams County since 1992. Visit their website at www.zaglandscaping.com.