There’s an old Latin phrase “Enula campana reddit praecordia sana” which means “Elecampane will the spirits sustain,” which is understood to refer to the plant’s gently warming and restorative tonic properties. Botanist Sir John Hill wrote that “hardly any plant has more virtues.” For many cold, stuck conditions creating excess of waste or moisture, elecampane can be a very useful herb.
It’s fascinating that elecampane (Inula helenium) is used today very much the same way that herbalists and physicians used the herb long ago. It is considered warming and stimulating and has the ability to get things moving in many parts of the body. This includes encouraging stubborn mucous up and out of the lungs and respiratory tract, assisting with slow digestion, helping to support a healthy menstrual cycle, and discouraging fluid retention.
TRADITIONAL USES FROM AROUND THE WORLD
The Greeks and Romans found elecampane very valuable as an herb and food source. Hippocrates claimed that it supports healthy kidneys, brain, uterus and stomach function. The Greek physician Aelius Galenus, more commonly known as Galen, recommended elecampane for sciatic discomfort. Pliny the Elder suggested that everyone eat the root everyday to support healthy digestion.
There are many accounts of its use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). TCM claims that elecampane can strengthen the kidneys and spleen. A common preparation is to soak the flowers in honey and fry them. In Ayurvedic medicine, the herb is often used for respiratory and skin health and to soothe the energetic heart when one is suffering from grief due to the loss of one’s home or place.
Europeans made a traditional digestive tonic by infusing the roots in port wine with currants and sugar. The root was also candied and eaten as a treat. It is still used today in the production of absinthe in France and Switzerland.
Elecampane is native to southeastern Europe and western Asia, and made its way to North America by the European colonists. The Eclectic physicians adopted elecampane into their material medica in the nineteenth century. It was included in the US Pharmacopeia in 1890. There are reports that the Iroquois used the herb to support respiratory health.
FOLKLORE AND MYTHOLOGY
The herb has a strong connection to Helen of Troy from Greek mythology. Before Linnaeus renamed the plant, it was known as “Enula campana” or Helen of the plains. It is said that elecampane grew where Helen’s tears fell across the plains, as she was torn away from her home in Sparta. Another version of the story claims Helen was holding elecampane when she was making her way to Troy with Paris. Yet another version of the tale states that she was harvesting elecampane when she was kidnapped. The species name that Linnaeus eventually gave to elecampane is helenium, referring again to Helen of Troy.
In the Celtic tradition, it is believed that elves and fairies inhabit the elecampane plant. Spreading the dried root around one’s home was thought attract the good fairies. The root was burned as an incense to encourage one’s intuition. The roots were also hung in a baby’s nursery as a blessing.
HABITAT AND HARVESTING
Elecampane prefers to grow in wet and rocky soils. The large oblong alternate leaves have a slightly serrated edge. The underside of the leaf is lighter in color due to the small hairs growing across the bottom. The bright yellow flowers are daisy-like, as are many of the flowering plants of the sunflower, or Asteraceae, family of which it belongs.
The roots are best harvested in the second year, when the essential oils are said to be most potent. The fiberous outer layer can be removed and the fleshy white root inside can be cut and used in teas, tinctures, or eaten whole. Probably due to its bitter taste, historical and modern literature suggests soaking, baking or frying in honey or sugar before eating the root. Honey is preferred, as sugar can actually lower immune function.
If you’ve ever smelled elecampane root, you’ll most likely have a vivid memory of that unique olfactory experience. Elecampane has a very distinct and memorable aroma. Smelling the essential oils in the plant material gives you a clue about its traditional uses. As with other aromatic herbs, elecampane is well-known for its ability to support the respiratory tract. In older texts, an essential oil in elecampane, now known as alantolactone, was referred to as “elecampane camphor.” This older name alludes to its similarity to camphor essential oil (from camphor trees) famously used for respiratory complaints.
Elecampane can be found today in many respiratory tea and tincture formulas, including WishGarden’s Deep Lung, Get Over It, and Respiratory Strength herbal extracts. Many herbalists report the effectiveness of chewing honeyed elecampane root to soothe bronchial irritation and to encourage healthy mucous expectoration. Check out the Honeyed Elecampane Root Recipe at the end of the article.
Elecampane is also cherished as an effective digestive tonic, stimulating appetite, soothing abdominal discomfort and encouraging a healthy microbiome in the digestive tract. This effectiveness in supporting digestive health is due to it’s bitterness, it’s volatile oils and the fact that 40% of the root consists of inulin. Inulin is a prebiotic that feeds healthy bacteria in the digestive tract, improving digestion, increasing nutrient assimilation and supporting immune function.
In 1804, the prebiotic inulin was first isolated from elecampane. Inulin was named after the plant’s genus name Inula. The old Gaelic name for elecampane was “creamh,” which was also a name used to refer to many other inulin-containing plants, such as garlic and leeks, suggesting that the benefits of inulin may have been understood long before it was discovered.
Elecampane can be taken in several forms to to support healthy digestion. It is effective as a tea, tincture and eaten whole as a honeyed treat. Use the recipe below to make and enjoy the benefits of elecampane root.
HONEYED ELECAMPANE ROOT RECIPE
- Wash, peel, and slice the fresh root to approximately ¼” pieces.
- Place a single layer of the roots into a small frying pan or wok.
- Add 3 tablespoons of honey, adding more if needed to evenly cover all of the pieces.
- Bring to a low simmer for a few minutes, until the honey starts to look “frothy” around the roots.
- Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.
- Return to a low simmer and repeat this heating and cooling process until the roots are completely infused with honey.
(adapted from Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech)
Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech
Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine by Andrew Chevallier
Planetary Herbology by Michael Tierra
Rebecca’s Herbs https://www.rebeccasherbs.com/pages/herb-elecampane
Writer Amy Malek, CCN, CCH, INHC is a Certified Clinical Nutritionist, Certified Clinical Herbalist, Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and Flower Essence Practitioner. She discovered her love for plants in the Sonoran Desert while living in Tucson, AZ. She has been studying plants of the Mountain West and Southwest for 10 years. Her many teachers include Paul Bergner, Rosemary Gladstar, Dr. Aviva Romm, Lisa Ganora, Kat MacKinnon, Erin Smith, John Slattery and Charles Kane. Her career is divided between Holistic Health, Graphic/Web Design and Marketing/Social Media Consulting. She is currently WishGarden’s Social Media Coordinator. She lives in Boulder County, CO. She enjoys wildcrafting and growing her own medicinal plants and making a variety of herbal remedies. You can learn more about her practice on her website, www.wholeheart-wellness.com.
For educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, or sell any product.