Purple Coneflowers

Echinacea purpurea

Purple coneflower, native to North America, is also known as elk root, black Sampson, Indian head, snake root, scurvy root, and Echinacea purpurea, scientifically.

The scientific name derives from the Greek “ekhinos,” for hedgehog, due to the spiky centers. (Starfish and sea urchins are, of course, Echinodermata: hedgehog-skinned.) The echinacea plant has been reputed for centuries to be of medicinal use to humans, although current medical studies show no benefit to using echinacea as a treatment for either cancer or the common cold. Still, the Utes believed that wounded elks sought out the plant for healing and many Native American tribes across the continent used the plant to treat wounds, burns, swelling, and illness. It is chewed in some sweat lodge ceremonies and the Navajo peoples consider it one of their sacred Life Medicines.

Folk legend has it that the purple coneflower will lift the T-cell count of the immune system; that it has the power to attract prosperity to the home it is planted near or into which it is carried. It has been thought to have been an appropriate offering to river gods and goddesses or “place spirits.”

The plant attracts bees and butterflies, but also slugs. It is generally drought-resistant and loves the sun.

For my part, I find it quintessentially American: native, both tame and wild; it has stories to tell and a very straight, tall, resolute stem. The lore requires study and belief and debate but the object is so clearly hardy and worthwhile. It's an honest sort of plant, even if there are lies told about it. Everything needs its secrets and its stories. Why should the American coneflower, the elk root, the purpurea, the scurvy root be so different?

It isn't, of course. And, also reputedly, it makes a very fine tea.



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