From: Robin Blackstone, ENN
Published February 5, 2014 08:17 AM

Achoo! Native Echinacea angustifolia plant is blown away

Echinacea, a genus of flower in the daisy family is sold in many over-the-counter cold and flu remedies and sold in pharmacies and health and nutrition stores. Echinacea has nine wild species in eastern and central North America that grow in moist to dry prairies and in open wooded areas. The genus includes the purple coneflower, pale purple coneflower and narrow-leaved purple coneflower. All have large magenta petals that unfurl from early to late summer.

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The coneflower is one of the "top five" retail sellers having gained in popularity as an herbal supplement and feature plant in perennial gardens according to the National Garden Bureau and chosen as the 2014 plant of the year "because it's such an American staple."

Now the formerly abundant narrow-leaved purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia), native to the tall grass prairie and North American Great Plains are becoming scarce.

"...with the arrival of European settlers in about 1870, many prairies were converted to agricultural fields. Along with other prairie plants, coneflowers were plowed under." says Ruth Shaw, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Minnesota.

The native flower is now restricted to patches of grassland, plots that are prairie remnants, Shaw and colleague Stuart Wagenius of the Chicago Botanic Garden have found.

Through a National Science Foundation (NSF) Long-Term Research in Environmental Biology (LTREB) grant, the scientists are studying the genetic composition of narrow-leaved purple coneflowers in a Douglas County, Minnesota prairie and discovering how such fragmented plant populations adapt to environmental change.

Railroad tracks and row crops encroach upon these small slices of prairie. "Native prairies are filled with plants and pollinators," says Shaw, "but our 27 study sites have become little but coneflower islands."

Sam Scheiner, program director in National Science Foundation's Division of Environmental Biology, which funds the research adds, "Many of us use an extract of Echinacea for our health. Live Echinacea plants can also help us understand the health of entire ecosystems. "Human activities have shrunk wildlands and fragmented the landscape," says Scheiner, "with unknown consequences for the plants and animals living there. Understanding how Echinacea is responding will help us better manage natural areas."

Tallgrass prairie is among the most endangered habitats in the world, says Wagenius. "We hope to quickly learn as much about it as we can. With some effort, we might be able to save at least some of these prairie patches."

Read more at the National Science Foundation.

Echinacea angustifolia image via Shutterstock.

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