My wild (plant) road trip

Two university girls. The open road. A car full of alcohol.

The two girls were Shannon and me, on her collecting trip, when we were both doing our doctoral research summer of '98. She was working on Echinacea and I was working on Ginseng.

Echinacea is indigenous to the Great Plains of North America. Amerindians have traditionally used Echinacea for wound and respiratory infections and today Echinacea products are used around the world to treat ailments of the immune and inflammatory response.

The open road became for us the local roads in the Great Plains of the U.S. Shannon’s plan was to start her field research after conferring with an Echinacea taxonomy expert at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. Then she planned to collect Echinacea in the mixed grassland; that is, the middle part the Great Plain, within walking distance of roads making our way from Kansas, through Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota on our way to Brandon, Manitoba.

We were on the road by mid-July. It was a good time to collect because this plant was flowering. Although there are nine species of Echinacea, Shannon required only E. angustifolia, E. purpura and E. pallida as these were the ones in most Echinacea health products. These look the same. One lone cone flower rises on a tall rough-hairy stem on a dark green base of lance-shaped leaves. The cone is generally brown with drooping florets. These range in colour from whitish-pink to a reddish-purple. My strategy was to point out any pink colour among the grassland plants on the side of the road. We became very good at spotting Echinacea at a distance of 1000 metres while travelling at full speed.

The car full of alcohol was our rental packed with camp gear, digging tools and containers of ethyl alcohol, the preservative for the harvested Echinacea. Shannon packed a lot of these in anticipation of a successful trip. Every day was the same: Drive until we saw a clump of Echinacea, get out of the car, dig for the plant, place the plants in the containers with alcohol, label the container and record the GPS location. Then we would be off, barely taking in the scene around us, except the first few times, at the distant grazing herds of cattle, sometimes a small herd of bison or the lone pronghorn. The trunk smelled of alcohol. Then the car interior.

We crossed the border back into Canada with trepidation, as we were taking the crossing used by drug traffickers. It was our lucky day: The border guard looked at the dozen permits and licences to collect and transport our precious Echinacea, glanced at the pile of opaque containers in the back seat, then waved us on.

Shannon and I had a great time on her road trip. Curiously, I have never used tinctures of Echinacea since then. I wonder if it’s the smell of the alcohol.




Valerie Assinewe

Valerie Assinewe, PhD, learned about herbal medicines from her grandmothers, in her graduate studies, and in her jobs with the federal government and as a consultant. She is now a retired civil servant.

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