Synonyms and Common names: Elfwort, Elf Dock, Velvet dock, Scabwort, Yellow starwort, wild sunflower, Elecampagne, Horseheal, and Horse elder.
Description and Habitat:
Elecampane is a large herbaceous perennial which is indigenous to south-eastern Europe and western Asia, but has been naturalised in Britain, Ireland, and the north mid-west US.
It has a thick, cylindrical, branched rhizome, and an erect, sparsely branched, tough, furrowed stem, which is hairy in the lower part, and downy above.
The oval basal leaves narrow into a winged petiole, are pointed at the tip, and blunt-toothed at the edges. The alternate stem leaves are irregularly toothed at the margin, large, tapering-oval in shape, with a heart-shaped base, sessile and short-tapered.
The single flower heads grow at the ends of the branches from the axils of the leaves or bracts and are sometimes arranged in sparse umbels. The outer, inwardly-turned bracts are oval and felt-like on the outside, with a large heart-shaped green appendix that bends backward. The inner bracts are lineate, dry membranous, and are widened towards the ends.
The bright yellow strap-shaped ray florets are numerous and are around twice the length of the bracts. Both these and the inner disc florets are tubular. The plant flowers between June and October and grows wild in hedgerows and damp meadows. It can also be cultivated.
Elecampane is one of our largest herbaceous plants and is found widely distributed throughout England, though it is difficult to find in the wild, occurring only locally in damp pastures and shady ground. It is probably a true native plant in southern England, but where it is found farther north, it may have originally only been an escape from cultivation.
Parts used: dried roots and rhizome.
Collection and preparation:
The rhizomes should be unearthed from plants that are at least two years old in September or October, and after the stem has died back. If the flowers are cut off in the summer, the rhizomes will be allowed to develop.
Constituents: 40% Inulin, essential oil called helenin, mucilage, triterpenes, and a bitter principle.
Expectorant, anti-tussive, diaphoretic, stomachic, anti-microbial, astringent, anti-catarrhal emollient, hepatic, pectoral, tonic, and a vulnerary.
Indications & Therapeutics:
Elecampane is specific for irritating bronchial coughs, especially in children. It may be used whenever there is copious catarrh formed, for example in bronchitis or emphysema. The mucilage has a relaxing effect, accompanied by the stimulation of its essential oils. In this way, expectoration is accompanied by a soothing action, which in this herb, is combined with an anti-bacterial effect. It may be used in asthma and bronchitic asthma, Elecampane has also been used in the treatment of tuberculosis. The bitter principles make it useful for stimulating digestion and appetite. Elecampane is of particular benefit in the treatment of chronic bronchitis in the elderly and congestive complaints in children.
Contraindications: Occasional allergic reactions may occur. Elecampane, as with all herbs, should not be used during pregnancy or lactation.
Preparation and dosage:
Decoction: Make a Decoction from 1 teaspoonful of the chopped root. Heat up and take as hot as possible three times daily.
Tincture: Take 1 to 2 ml. of Tincture three times daily.
Additional comments and Folklore:
The name Inula helenium comes from Helen of Troy, from whose tears it is said to have sprung. The Greeks and Romans regarded elecampane as a cure-all for ailments as diverse as dropsy, digestive upsets, menstrual disorders, and sciatica. The Anglo-Saxons used the herb as a tonic and as a treatment for skin disease and leprosy. By the 19th century, it was being used to treat skin disease, neuralgia, liver problems, and coughs.
Inulin was first isolated from elecampane in 1804 and took its name from the herb. Chinese research has demonstrated mild antibacterial properties as well as a stimulant effect on the nervous system, digestion, and adrenal cortex.
In China, the flowers of Inula japonica are used to treat asthma and bronchitis with excessive phlegm, and for vomiting and acid reflux. Inula racemosa has been reported to prevent depression in patients with ischaemic heart disease, and to have a beneficial effect on angina pectoris.
Elecampane is used to flavour digestive liqueurs and vermouths and is candied and used in confectionery. It is often added to proprietary cough linctus’s, pastilles, and pills.
In Celtic folklore, it is a favourite plant of the Eves, although it is used to protect against Elvin's magic. It is also used to attract fairies, despite being a big rough plan and not at all delicate, as one would expect from a fairy plant. In Germany, it was traditional to put an elf wort blossom in the middle of a bouquet to symbolize the sun and the head of Odin. The flower has the typical sun shape, and the freshly harvested seeds have a scent reminiscent of frankincense.
Elecampane was used by the Druids and is still used by Neopagans in the form of incense in rituals for initiation and baby blessings. The root was once chewed by travellers 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.