Help Confirming the Identity of the Popular Prairie Cone Flower, Echinacea


BRIT® Research Associate discovers simple method for identifying different species of the popular Echinacea plant


FORT WORTH, Texas – Echinacea is one of the world’s most popular herbal remedies, used to treat or prevent cold symptoms such as sore throats and stuffy noses. However, consumers can’t always be sure that preparations labeled Echinacea really are Echinacea. The eleven separate kinds (species and varieties) of the plant can be extremely difficult to tell apart, especially when not in flower. Even with the best of intentions, herbal companies can confuse different species or mix in other plants entirely.

Recently published research could help eliminate this problem and make the identification of individual kinds of Echinacea faster and easier. Botanist Harold W. Keller, Research Associate with the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, discovered that Echinacea ray florets—the brightly colored petals that droop from the central spiky cone—have uniquely shaped cells that are not found in other plants. Furthermore, each species of Echinacea has slightly different versions of these cells, making it possible not only to identify that a plant sample is from Echinacea but also from a particular species.

“Consumers want to buy quality-controlled preparations of Echinacea, but it’s sometimes difficult for herbal remedy companies to ensure that,” says Keller. “These findings may help consumers to be more confident in what they’re getting.”

Keller’s research was recently published by the Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas. Titled “The genus Echinacea (Asteraceae): floral, stem, and petiole morphology,” the article describes Keller’s microscopic analysis of the form and structure of the above-ground portions of the plant. For example, the ray florets of one kind have pyramid-shaped, tiered cells never described before in Echinacea or any other plant.

“Consumers have a right to expect a product will be what it claims to be,” says Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the nonprofit American Botanical Council. “That’s not so easy when what you’ve got is a pile of ground herbs that looks like every other pile of ground herbs. This research could provide a new technique for authenticating samples.”

Keller originally completed his research on Echinacea as part of his work toward his Master’s Degree in Botany in the early 1960s at the University of Kansas. Soon after completing the research, he joined the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps and served for three and a half years. He then began working toward a Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, concentrating his research on fungi and slime molds. His Echinacea research was set aside but never forgotten—although he was surprised it hadn’t been duplicated in the last fifty-two years. In fact he might not have been able to resume his previous research if his mother had not saved for many years all of his Echinacea black and white film negatives and log books used to identify and make the digital images.

“I conducted an extensive literature review to see what other work had been done on Echinacea and realized no one else had studied the microanatomy of the stems and flowers,” said Keller.

The painstaking nature of the research was likely behind the unwillingness of other scientists to take it on. Keller had to make slices of the plant only millimeters wide, apply multiple stains to bring out different details, and then carefully mount the slices on a slide to examine under a microscope.

Fortunately, such exacting work isn’t necessary today to see the unique details of different Echinacea species. It would be possible to slice into a plant sample with a razor blade, view it under a mobile phone microscope, and make a definitive identification of the species. “A farmer could do it in a field,” says Will McClatchey, former BRIT Vice President of Research. “Keller has given proof-of-concept to a procedure any herbal company could use to verify the identity of their materials if they wanted to pass on this level of confidence to the consumer.”

Ranchers, cattlemen, and farmers that wish to follow best management and conservation practices will benefit from species identification of Echinacea. Prairie Cone Flowers are key indicators of healthy ecosystems represented by prairie meadows and grasslands that provide potential forage and grazing areas for cattle and other wildlife. Bob O’Kennon, a research botanist at BRIT, has studied the ecosystem of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands in north central Texas near Fort Worth for 29 years. “O’Kennon has observed three species of Echinacea in this area.”

About Echinacea

* Native American Plains tribes considered Echinacea a highly prized medicinal plant; it was used, among other things, to relieve toothaches, soothe burns, and treat snake bites.

* Cone flowers are native to North America and found naturally nowhere else in the world; different species grow from Texas to the Dakotas, the Carolinas, and Georgia with distribution centered in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas.

* Echinacea tennesseensis was one of the first plant species listed on the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Species in 1979 but was removed in 2011 with the discovery of new populations and the hard work of conservationists. However, another species, Echinacea laevigata, was added to the list in 1992 and remains there today.

* The final format of this paper would not have been possible without the teamwork of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas editorial press and research staff.