Herbal Sales Generate Coneflower Demand, Concern

by Glinda Crawford

Some folks say: "That makes very good sense." Others chuckle and shake their heads: "you have got to be kidding. That's just about the craziest thing I have ever heard."

Both are probably right.

Earth medicines are big business these days. While some may consider this strange and a fad, herbal medicines are likely here to stay. Using herbal medicines the Earth provides makes sense; our grandparents did and so did countless generations before them.

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cone5.gif (111976 bytes) Now the shadow side: More than one previously abundant wild plant species has been harvested into threatened, endangered or extinct status due to popularity of its medicinal use. Examples include wild ginseng and golden seal.

It may happen again. Diggers have arrived on the Northern Great Plains with shovels in hand; even some locals have grabbed shovels on their way to the prairie in summer. What for?

Two years ago, my family and I were ecstatic to find the herbal medicine Echinacea, the Latin name for purple coneflower commonly found on North Dakota prairies. When we took Echinacea, our usual colds were less frequent and severe. We smugly stocked our cupboard with Echinacea teas and tincture (ground roots suspended in alcohol).

Then, Ruth Hall came to Grand Forks and told us people were digging purple coneflowers on private lands without permission near her home in Fort Berthold Reservation. "They even drive through fences," she said.

We hadn't thought about where it came from! This casual conversation began a quest for information, plus delight and disgust at what I found. Each conversation provided other stories, clues or questions. I began to wonder: are we losing something right under our noses?

Two significant insights came early on. From Darla Lenz with the Natural Heritage Program of the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department: "There is a black hole of information out there. Few know about this. We have to get the word out."

From Kathleen Brokke (a historical horticulturist): "Few people speak up for plants."

Here goes.

Historically, Echinacea -- primarily the roots -- was the most widely used medicinal plant of Plains Indian tribes, commonly used for colds, toothache, snakebite and killing pain. Native people shared the plant with European immigrants in the 1800s. The herb was widely used by settlers and by the end of the 1800s often suggested by western doctors. Echinacea became popular in Germany from the 1930s-1980s, with more than 240 products available from 50,000 pounds imported each year from the U.S. C. Hobbs in "Echinacea: The Immune Herb!" estimates 50,000-100,000 pounds/year were dug for European export over the last 100 years. Echinacea was discovered by U. S. herbalists in the 1980s. Since then, popularity in the U. S. has skyrocketed.

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Echinacea is described as bolstering the human immune system and is recommended for prevention and treatment of colds and flu, among other uses. (Please note: the purpose here is to inform, not to suggest use of Echinacea; each individual needs to make choices in their health care in consultation with a health professional to best suit their own unique needs.)

Currently, Echinacea is the top selling herbal medicine in the U. S. and Europe. One herbal magazine described sales as approaching that of aspirin.

While initial sales were confined to health food stores. Echinacea displays have sprung up like weeds in grocery and discount stores. Products available include: teas, capsules/tablets, tincture, cough drops, fresh plant extract, carbonated soft drink, juice, essential oil (for aromatherapy), diaper cream, skin cream and lollipops. But before you go dashing out to stock year cupboards, we need to look at where it comes from.

Three varieties are know for medicinal uses: Echinacea purpurea and pallida were common to central and southern plains; Echinacea angustifolia is more common to western and northern plains. It thrives in intense heat and cold, and likes dry and rocky areas. You guessed it, E. angustifolia feels at home in North Dakota, and is common throughout much of the state.

Most commercial supplies come from wild stock. Purple coneflowers have largely disappeared from Kansas and Nebraska. Wild stock in Missouri (the only state with laws against harvest on state lands) is described as "alive and well" by Hollis Crawford with the Missouri Conservation Commission.

Monique Kolster, a University of Montana environmental studies graduate student, has been studying harvest of Echinacea in Montana. She reports wide-spread digging in eastern Montana and conservatively estimates 100,000 pounds have been dug from northeastern Montana (with seven wet roots per pound, this equals approximately 700,000 plants). She and area residents have observed purple coneflowers as scarce in some areas where once abundant. Contacts in Williston last fall described buyers in trucks parked at intervals along highways in eastern Montana collecting roots from diggers; one rural bar owner gave cash for roots.

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What is happening in North Dakota?

A summer 1997 Williston Shopper ad announced jobs available for digging the "weed." Last fall , I shared the Echinacea issue with one of my classes at the University of North Dakota. One student, Rich Halvorson, sheepishly replied: "I dug Echinacea as a summer job in 1996 around my home in Williston. It was really hard work. I only lasted a day."

He grinned, and described the process further: "I worked with 10 others digging roots from a farmer's field (with permission). At first, we were told to dig the biggest plans for the biggest roots. Later we went back and dug the smaller ones too. By day's end, very few plants were visible."

At the time, Rich had no idea the plant was anything other than a "weed." In September 1997, in a message from the Grenora area on an internet Echinacea bulletin board, a writer reported seeing the plant and requested help in marketing it. In spring 1997, a Wisconsin ad encouraged potential diggers to grab their shovels and go to South Dakota. Requests for collecting permits are popping up on federal lands, including the Little Missouri National Grassland and Garrison Dam Project natural resources section. So far, requests have been denied.

Indian reservation lands are at risk, but some steps toward political action are being made. The Fort Berthold Tribal Council passed a resolution prohibiting digging. However, Kerry Hartman from Fort Berthold Community College reports observations of digging throughout the reservations of digging throughout the reservation, with some areas "dug worse than prairie dog towns."

What next?

Extensive collection of wild purple coneflowers cannot be sustained. Soon this precious wildflower may be endangered. Who knows what further damage to precious prairie life occurs as a result? Based on consumer demand and reports of increased digging around us, this summer could bring more digging and more damage to North Dakota's prairies.

Echinacea digging could be North Dakota's old growth forest, rainforest or salmon issue. Prairies are vital resources in a world where all things are connected. I described the Echinacea situation to a contact in the Manitoba Naturalist Society; she suggested that while it is presently inconceivable that a plant so abundant and widespread could be endangered, the digging of Echinacea would leave the open soil vulnerable to invasion by weeds (exotic, non-native plants).

You know what that means. Richard Crawford at the University of North Dakota goes further: "less than one percent of the northern tallgrass prairie has survived in North Dakota. Taking Echinacea is further violation of ecosystem integrity and probably cannot be sustained given the intensity of digging that we have seen. Other prairies farther west could be severely damaged as well."

Darla Lenz commented that Iowa lost most of its prairies and is now working to restore them. Why must we "lose" this precious resource in order to find out we miss what we have lost? Perhaps the threat of losing purple coneflowers forces us to think about who we are and what we are about.

What can we do?

There is much we can do. We need to get the word out. Locally and nationally, little attention has focused on the risk to purple coneflowers and prairies. Many diggers and landowners don't know the effects. Political action may be important. Sellers should provide -- and buyers should buy -- only commercially grown, organic products, not wild-crafted (plants taken from the wild). We must also determine if some wild harvest is sustainable; in other words, can we harvest wild stock without diminishing wild populations or further damaging the prairie's integrity?

Users -- like me -- should use Echinacea sparingly until commercial crops catch up. Probably the best news of all is that Echinacea angustifolia represents economic development potential as a commercially-grown product. Purple coneflowers have been growing here for thousands of years under conditions that would test the hardiest of souls. But growing Echinacea is outside the fences of conventional agriculture. It is herbal medicine. Plus, the plant must be 3-4 years old before roots reach harvestable size.

Yet, it is happening. Some exploratory research providing background for commercial growing is in process in our area. Dwight Tober at the USDA-NRCS Plant Materials Center in Bismarck reports an initiative in developing a seed source adapted to the northern plains. Dan Svedarsky at the Northwest Experiment Station on the University of Minnesota - Crookston campus is evaluating Echinacea growth on droughty soils. Further references show this humble Great Plains native is grown commercially in Eastern Europe. Russia and Germany, as well as California, Washington, British Columbia, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Pressing issues abound, many on a scale of survival seemingly more important than a simple purple flower on the prairie. Echinacea forces us to think about what is important and to stand by it. Pride in prairie is important because prairie is where we live and ultimately who we are. With talk, time and some work, perhaps we can turn a potential loss into an enormous gain.

This article first appeared in North Dakota Outdoors. July 1998. It is reprinted here with the permission of the author Glinda Crawford. Ms Crawford teaches in the Department of Sociology at the University of North Dakota.

I would like to thank Glinda Crawford for letting me reprint this article in the Nature's Reading Room.
This article, hopefully will help individuals become more aware what is happening on our Prairie Landscapes.

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