Native Plants

Coneflowers' Popularity: Prescription for Trouble?

  • Gary Lantz
  • Jun 01, 1997
When Paul Buck knelt down to examine fresh diggings last summer in a native tallgrass prairie near Bartlesville, Oklahoma, he couldn't believe the damage done. Just a few days before, the field had been carpeted with one of the prairie's most beautiful wildflowers, the daisylike purple coneflower. But now the flowers' subtle pinks and pale lavenders were missing, with deep gashes and mounds of raw earth marking where the plants once stood.

Buck, a University of Tulsa botanist and a founder of the Oklahoma Native Plant Society, had heard medicinal plant gatherers were invading Bartlesville-area fields in search of purple coneflowers, one of nine members of the genus Echinacea. But he wasn´t prepared for what he saw. "They had taken every plant out of a field of at least 40 acres," Buck says. "There wasn´t a single one left in a colony of Echinacea that had covered the area just days before."

Echinacea roots are gaining fame as a reputed tonic against colds and the flu. And with these roots recently fetching as much as $21 a pound, unscrupulous harvesters in Oklahoma and elsewhere are rushing to cash in on what they call the "new black gold." Conservationists fear that some rare habitats and wild coneflowers--two species of which are already federally listed as endangered--may be the losers in this new gold rush.

"Collectors tend not to discriminate among [Echinacea] species," says Chris Robbins of TRAFFIC USA, a wildlife trade monitoring group. As a result, he says, "collection in the wild in some cases may be greater than what the populations can withstand."

Coneflowers are members of the daisy family and native only to North America, found most often in prairies and open woodlands. Plains Indians discovered the medicinal value of Echinacea centuries ago, and used the root frequently to treat everything from coughs and colds to toothaches and snakebites.

European settlers passed the secret along to relatives back home. Word spread and Echinacea preparations--now numbering more than 300--became widely available in Europe. Echinacea´s popularity in its home country developed more slowly, but has blossomed lately as part of a trend towards natural medicines. Recent scientific studies indicate Echinacea may indeed help the body fight disease, but doctors point out that further testing is required. Many Americans aren´t waiting, however: Echinacea is now the top-selling herbal product in U.S. health food stores, with sales of about $80 million annually, according to industry sources.

Purple coneflowers, the most popular species in Echinacea preparations, are commercially cultivated in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, according to Steven Foster, a medicinal plant expert from Arkansas. But most commercial supplies of other Echinacea species are taken from the wild. To meet the growing demand for coneflowers, poachers are digging the plant out of pastures, prairies, roadsides and even nature reserves. The problem is most acute in the central United States, where most types of coneflowers are found.

Harvey Payne, director of the Nature Conservancy´s 36,000-acre Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Pawhuska, Oklahoma, has battled these plant poachers both on the preserve and his own private ranch. "We´ve had to escort diggers off the preserve, and then I´ve come home to find plant hunters after coneflowers on my own place," Payne says.

Payne notes that in years past the majority of digging was confined to highway and county road rights-of-way. "Now you can put up a five-strand barbed wire fence and people will climb over it and walk half a mile into your pasture just for a few roots," he says, adding that he wants the plant on his land. "If anyone comes onto my property, or any property that doesn´t belong to them, and collects without permission, it is a crime."

A crime it may be, but not exactly high profile. With prisons already overflowing, "I don´t want to put somebody in jail for pulling up a weed," says Dayle James, sheriff in Okmulgee County, Oklahoma.

Coneflowers may be "weeds" to some, but officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) refer to Echinacea in more polite terms. FWS, charged with protecting rare species, lists two coneflower species--E. Tennesseensis and E. Laevigata--as endangered. The former is found only in Tennessee, and the latter grows in a few scattered populations in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. "Anyone with a backhoe and a semi could take one of those populations in a single night," says Nora Murdock of the FWS regional office in North Carolina.

Murdock says Echinacea poaching has not become as big a problem in the Southeast as it has been in the central United States, largely because the plants are less common and harder to find. "But as more and more infectious diseases emerge, the demand for Echinacea products is going to skyrocket," she adds.

Finding and prosecuting poachers is very difficult "when all you´ve got to go on is a hole in the ground," Murdock points out. What´s more, the Endangered Species Act does not ban collecting rare plants on private lands unless state laws specifically forbid the practice--and many states do not have such laws, Murdock says.

The federal agency is taking another tack in its attempt to thwart Echinacea poaching. Almost all Echinacea species are easy to cultivate, Murdock says, so the FWS, Clemson University and other partners are trying to promote Echinacea as an alternative cash crop. "To me, there´s no excuse for people taking coneflowers from the wild," she says.

The Nature Conservancy´s Harvey Payne puts it more bluntly: "The people who are stealing these plants are nothing more than common criminals."

By Gary Lantz

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