reprinted with permission from Kansas Alumni magazine, issue no. 2,
Researcher studies popular herb’s
Herbal medicines may be good for you, but are they good for the herbs?
That question is the focus of a study addressing concerns that the popularity
of natural remedies may lead to overharvesting of wild herbs.
Kelly Kindscher, c’79, PhD’92, an associate scientist at the
Kansas Biological Survey, studied the effect of harvesting on echinacea,
a common Great Plains wildflower sometimes called purple coneflower or
Kansas snakeroot. His conclusion: Harvesting is not hurting echinacea,
at least for now.
The U.S. Forest Service funded Kindscher’s work because coneflower
populations on national parkland are increasingly under attack from both
legal and illegal harvesters.
In 1998, officials caught commercial harvesters who had poached 5,000
coneflowers from Custer National Forest in Montana. Kindscher’s
task was to find out if incidents like these threaten to wipe out coneflowers.
“Our message is, ‘Probably not,’” Kindscher says.
“The coneflowers can tolerate current harvest levels, but if the
price doubled and doubled again, there could be a problem.”
The use of echinacea as medicine may seem new, Kindscher says, but it
actually has a long history. Native Americans used the plant as an anesthetic
and to treat ailments ranging from coughs to snakebites. Echinacea was
also a standard feature of the pioneer’s medicine chest.
Now it is on the comeback trail. People have started taking echinacea
as an immune system stimulant to fight off colds and flu, and they are
taking it in significant numbers. About 70 percent, by weight, of all
medicinal herbs sold in the United States are echinacea, according to
graduate student Rebecca Wittenberg, a former herbalist who works with
That 70 percent might not be a big deal if herbal remedies were still
on the medical fringe, but recent studies have documented their increasing
popularity. One survey found that the use of herbal medicines in northern
California tripled between 1996 and 1999, while another reported that
60 percent of Minneapolis residents used herbal medicines in 2001. The
trend is so strong that the National Institutes of Health established
a National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 1998.
That trend worried the Forest Service and Kindscher. They feared increasing
demand was spurring poaching and legal harvest to unsustainable levels.
Echinacea is vulnerable to over-harvesting because the root is the part
people want. Luckily, the pencil-thick root that makes echinacea so desirable
may also be its salvation.
Harvesters collect the roots two ways. Some drive a pick into the ground
and pop put the plant like a carpenter removing a bent nail. Others use
a modified spade with a long tongue sticking out like a finger from a
fist. Either way, diggers get only the top foot of the root, which can
extend 5 feet.
When Kindscher surveyed coneflower fields several years after a harvest,
he found that about one in five harvested roots had resprouted. He also
found mature plants that diggers skipped because they were too small at
the time of harvest and plants growing in rocky locations that diggers
“Digging is pretty hard work, so flowers growing in hard to reach
places should be safe,” Kindscher says.