Purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, Keene, NH

Happy days are here again: the purple coneflowers are blooming! This particular stand of purple coneflowers isn’t wild: it’s an ornamental planting growing alongside one of the buildings at Keene State College. But, this is precisely what wild purple coneflowers look like, so I can in my imagination block out the buildings and surrounding city and pretend that I’m contemplating a stand of purple coneflowers growing in the middle of a sun-drenched, insect-singing field back in Ohio. Although I said way back in April that violets are my favorite wildflower, I think I’m going to have to amend that statement. Violets are my favorite springtime, shade-tolerant, close-to-the-ground wildflower. Purple coneflowers, on the other hand, are my favorite summertime, sun-loving, tall-spreading wildflower. Whereas violets are shy and retiring (there’s a reason, after all, that introspective folks are called “shrinking violets”), purple coneflowers are strong, sturdy, and outspoken, the stand-up-and-be-noticed extroverts of the plant kingdom.

Purple coneflowers are so named because of the shape of their flower heads: a bristly, orange-tinted central disk surrounded by drooping purple to reddish-purple petal-like rays. Purple cones are members of the Composite family, a group of flowers that includes weedy summertime favorites such as dandelions, daisies, and asters. Composites are so named because each individual flower head is made up of hundreds of smaller individual flowers, each with male and female parts of its own. The yellow central disk of a daisy, for instance, is composed of hundreds of individual pistil- and stamen-bearing flowers, and each so-called “petal” of a daisy is also an individual flower (termed by botanists a “ray”) that similarly bears its own reproductive parts. So when a lovelorn lady plucks the rays from daisy (“He loves me, he loves me not…”), she’s actually plucking and discarding an entire flower with each utterance, a whole bouquet of disks and rays being needed to discern her beloved beau’s true intentions.

Deptford pink, Dianthus armeria, Keene, NH

The Latin name for purple coneflower is Echinacea purpurea: purpurea in reference to the flower’s purple rays and echinacea in reference the spiny central disk, which to Linnaeus’ eye resembled an echidna, the spiny anteater named in turn after the bristly sea urchin (echnus). Even if you’ve never seen purple coneflower, you’ve probably heard of Echinacea, a popular herbal supplement believed to bolster the immune system. When we lived in the Cambridge Zen Center, many of our housemates took tincture of Echinacea in an attempt to avoid the colds and flu that spread so aptly in winter’s close-quarters. In those days, herbal remedies were all the rage: we had housemates who took Echinacea to strengthen the immune system, St. John’s wort to fight depression, and Ginseng to stimulate the mind. Yet whenever I’d ask these avid herbalists whether they’d ever seen or could even recognize Echinacea, St. John’s wort, or ginseng in their natural, untinctured state, I’d inevitably be met with blank stares and shakes of the head: “You mean this stuff grows wild somewhere instead of sprouting from health food store shelves,” the response seemed to suggest.

Although I’m sure those daily tinctures had some sort of medicinal or at least placebo effect, I’m even more sure that Echinacea‘s curative properties are stronger for those who have seen it in its full-flowered glory. Taken as a extractive pill or tincture, Echinacea is isolated from the sun-drenched fields that fuel its fire: surely a large part of the curative power of a winter’s cup of Echinacea tea comes from the quiet memory of the summer splendor that harbored its form. Thoreau himself argued that store-bought huckleberries don’t taste nearly as sweet as those you’ve gathered yourself, the exertion of gathering being the primary sweetener. Although you needn’t gather your own Echinacea, St. John’s wort, or ginseng to reap their medicinal benefits, I always made a habit to show ornamentally planted Echinacea and weedy sprouts of St. John’s wort, both of which could be found within walking distance of the Zen Center, to my herbal-minded housemates. Although a faceless healer might still work some magic, how much more efficacious is a healer you’ve met and befriended, one who cures by dint of their natural beauty and wholeness versus mere potions concocted from their blood alone?

Staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina, Keene, NH

During my Zen Center days, I myself used store-bought tincture of Echinacea, adding several drops to the twice-daily cups of stinging nettle tea (Urtica dioica) that eased me out of a life-threatening double-whammy of asthma and bronchitis. The doctors who finally, after repeat visits, agreed that my symptoms weren’t imaginary couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to take the side-effect-laden steroids they said I’d need to inhale or ingest for the rest of my life. “You might die if you don’t take these meds,” one told me. “Whether I take your meds or not,” I countered, “I’m going to die eventually.”

For me, a large part of the curative power of those cups of nettle tea laced with honey and Echinacea lay in the restorative power of simply pausing for a contemplative cup, the green, chlorophyll-rich aroma reminding me of happier days when my lungs and legs were strong. I didn’t gather my own nettles, but I knew what nettles look (and feel) like, having gotten stung by more than my fair share when I explored the woods and fields of my Ohio youth. Was it the nettle tea that cured me of my asthma and bronchitis, or the Echinacea? Or was it the hours of chanting I performed, a devotional act dedicated to a Buddhist saint I didnt (and dont) officially believe in but whose chants I thought might strengthen the very lungs I used to serenade her? Or was it simply time that cured me, the nettles, Echinacea, and chanting serving to occupy my impatient mind while time allowed my body to work its own eventual cure? The real medicine was probably a concoction brewed out of all three, a brew liberally laced with my own stubborn vow to prove wrong those damned doctors who had the arrogance to claim to know how to cure symptoms they had days before with equal arrogance denied.

Sweet fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, Pawlett, VT

Whatever cured me of my asthma, I know that whenever others pass heedlessly by another ornamental planting of purple-rayed, orange-disked flowers, I make conscious note of this old friend: that’s Echinacea, purple coneflower, my own personal Purple Cureflower. Those long winter nights when I lay abed praying to Christ, Kwan Seum Bosal, or whoever’d listen to my weak, winded pleas, I’d solace myself with imagined visions of woods filled with nettles and fields full of coneflowers: someday, I vowed, I’ll be strong enough again to visit them face-to-face. My favorite scene in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple takes place in a sunny field where Celie and her girlfriend Shug casually stroll while sharing thoughts of God. “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it,” Shug remarks. “You mean it want to be loved, just like the bible say,” Celie asks. And with a single declarative sentence, Shug sums up the all there is to know about theology, philosophy, and psychology: “Everything want to be loved.” God wants to be loved, people want to be loved, and the color purple in a field wants to be loved or at least noticed: it’s simply the way the universe has always worked.

In the film adaptation of Walker’s novel, Whoopi Goldberg as Celie and Margaret Avery as Shug walk through a field full of purple mallows, but I see the scene differently: in my mind, it’s a field of purple coneflowers they stroll through. Everything wants to be loved, and purple coneflowers are no exception: whether wild or planted, purple coneflowers were set down by intention or by chance to be noticed and admired, that momentary spot of wonder serving as their deepest curative power. Whether you purchase or pluck them, tincture or tea them, please, please notice their presence. God took care to put those coneflowers there, wherever they are. The very least you can do is stop to notice.