Friday, February 18, 2011

Inula helenium - Elecampane

Inula helenium - Elecampane also called Yellow Starwort, Elfdock, Elfwort, Horse-elder, Horseheal, Scabwort,  Velvet Dock, Wild Sunflower

Bitter, pungent, aromatic, expectorant, antitussive, hepatic, antiseptic, diuretic, antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, diaphoretic, immunostimulant, Elecampane covers a lot of ground as a medicinal herb.  It is a perennial plant, growing up to 6 feet high, with  large, olive-colored leaves with white veins. The large, yellow flower heads are solitary and grow from July to September. Overall, the plant resembles a horse radish with a ragged sunflower type bloom.

Elecampane is named after Helen of Troy. As the legend goes, she was holding elecampane in her hand when she left to live with Paris in Troy, another legend says that it sprung up from where her tears fell.  It was used in ancient Rome for culinary purposes as well as medication. Elecampane is native to Europe and parts of Asia, but it is cultivated all over the world.  Research has shown that elecampane contains insulin that can provide bronchial relief. It can also stimulate the immune system. It was once used in the treatment of tuberculosis infections.

In Celtic folklore it is a favorite plant of the Elves, although it is used to protect against Elvin magic. It is also used to attract fairies, despite being a big, rough plant and not at all delicate, as one would expect from a fairy plant. In Germany, it was traditional to put an elfwort blossom in the middle of a bouquet to symbolize the Sun and the head of Odin, and the flower has the typical Sun shape (and the freshly harvested seeds smell like frankincense). 

It was used by the Druids and still used by Neopagans in the form of incense in rituals for initiation and baby blessings. The root was once chewed by travelers when passing close to a polluted river as protection from whatever noxious substance was causing the stench.  It is a stimulating expectorant, but one which contains buffering mucilage to soothe the airway passages. 

The volatile oil is antiseptic, working much like garlic through the gut to the lungs; it is also vermifuge and fungicidal. Both the oil and root have been used to treat bacterial and fungal infections. And Helenin has been used to inhibit the activity of the tuberculosis bacillus. 

For chronic lung problems Elecampane has been combined with Wild Cherry bark, White Pine bark, Comfrey root, and Licorice. It has also been combined with Horehound, Coltsfoot, Butterfly Weed, and Yarrow.  A root tea of Elecampane has been used for chronic bronchitic infections, lung infections as part of overall treatment, whooping cough, emphysema, urinary tract infections, cystitis, hay fever, irritant coughs, asthma, pleurisy, excess mucus, laryngitis, weak digestion associated with mucous formation, diarrhea, dystenary, yeast infections (bowel), amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea (tea or candy have been used for both conditions) and intestinal parasites.  

In ointment form Elecampane has been used for muscular aches and pains.   A strong infusion of the leaves, used warm, has been used to treat skin eruptions. As an herbal bath it relieves skin inflammation.  A decoction is used as a lotion for scabies mites on both humans and animals.  And it was once used by veterinarians to treat pulmonary problems in horses.  The whole plant is used to make a strong brew to treat asthma in dogs (flat-nosed breeds being more prone); dose being 1 tbsp morning and night, sweetened with honey; also the steam from the boiled root is used to ease breathing.

It has been used in China in form of syrup, lozenge and candy for bronchitis and asthma.  Pieces of the dried root have been chewed morning and evening to treat asthma.  Known in India as pushkaramula and highly regarded as an analgesic and treatment for lung problems.  A European method of treating indigestion has been to sip on a cordial made by infusing the root with sugar and currants in port wine.  In Russia the root is preserved in vodka for winter use as a restorative after illness, and for digestive problems. It has been used in Asia to treat cholera, malarial fever, dysentary, snake bites, insect stings, cancer, and nausea; a decoction of the plant has been used to treat thyroid tumor.  It was once used by the Spanish in surgical dressings. 

Elecampane was used as a flavoring for desserts, fish sauces, candies, and liqueurs such as absinthe and  vermouth.  The root was candied and up until about 1920 was a common flavoring in English sweets. 

Boiling dry roots in water on top of stove will freshen sickrooms as well as stale winter air.  An infusion or decoction added to laundry rinse water will freshen linens.

When harvesting, the root is taken in the fall after the stem has died back (usually after 2 hard frosts), then chopped into small pieces and dried slowly, but completely, with low heat.  Flowers are harvested when fully open, then dried whole for use in decoctions, infusions, and powders.

Elecampane can easily be grown from seed sown in spring or autumn or with 2-inch root cuttings in fall or spring. Perennial.  It is grown as an ornamental plant in moist, well-drained soil, in full to part sun. 

Inula helenium will easily become one of your favorite medicine herbs.  It is easy to grow and easy to process. You can use it by itself, without having to combine it with other herbs. And, it’s incredibly effective.


Michelle Walker said...

Need help my elecampane is turning brown and the flower stalks are falling over. It is three years old and this is the first year for it theflower. I don't want to lose it and can't find any information on what might be causing it to turn brown. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I didn't see a response to Michelle Walker's question... I bought my first Elecampane plant from a herbal nursery and it went from a thriving looking beautiful plant to a wilted sad looking plant in less than two days! It was grown in a greenhouse, in their "perfect" conditions.. What is suggested to minimize the stress that it obviously went through, to get to my place??
Some nurseries take extra care to wrap what you buy from them with a protective plastic wrap... I'm surprised that Richter's didn't ...
Can it recover from this wilted state? I'm still hoping...

Lightbody said...

From another site, I learned that it's best to harvest the root in year 2, that after year 3 the roots go woody. So, best to save the seeds, harvest the roots, and replant on a cycle that way. I also got my babies from Richter's. They had a hard first year and needed lots of babying, but oh my goodness, they are taking off now in year 2! Only one of the 6 flowered this year...6 feet high! And the leaves are like elephant ears. I'm excited to harvest in a few weeks after the plant browns and I know the power is gone back into the root. Going to check on the seed situation right now (hope they haven't all flown the coop!) It's so exciting to learn the elvin 'roots' to this plant!