Elecampane (Inula helenium)
aka Elf Dock (Danish), Elfwort, Scabwort, Olandswartzel (PA Dutch), Wild Sunflower, Horseheal, Horse Elder, Nurseheal, Velvetdok, Yellow Starwort, Marchalan (Welsh), Ailleann, or Creamh (Gaelic), Alant, Allicampane, Enula Campana, Aune
About This Plant
Elecampane (rhymes with champagne) is a large, four to five feet tall, sunflower-like perennial from the Asteraceae family that is hardy in USDA zones 3 to 7. It likes damp pastures and shady ground and grows in a wide range of climate types. It does best, however, in zones with mild summers and cold winters. It does not grow well in very hot and humid areas. Its tall stalks, pale green, downy foliage and bright yellow flowers with large seed heads in the center are reminiscent of a Sunflower plant.
Elecampane’s flowers are up to four inches wide – much smaller than Sunflowers. They bloom early Summer until Fall, typically starting in their second year of growth. The flowers are bright yellow, with each containing 50-100 ray flowers and 100-250 disc flowers. It has a sturdy main stem with smaller stems branching from it. Multiple stems shoot out of the top and each stem is topped with just one flower, providing a colorful display.
Its toothed leaves can grow up to two feet in length. The lower ones grow on stalks and the rest clasp the stem. They are green and coarse on the upper side, covered with scattered hairs. The underside of the leaves are whitish and downy in appearance, covered in a thick layer of woolly hair.
Elecampane has a thick and sturdy taproot that is branching and aromatic. It spreads by rhizomes – underground runners that have both roots and upward-climbing shoots. The Rhizomes spread out in an Octopus-like shape.
Hippocrates spoke of the virtues of Elecampane as a stimulant to the kidney, brain, uterus, and stomach. It was commonly used to treat indigestion. Many throughout history associated this plant with elves and other fairy folks. It was believed that scattering the dried root around the home would attract the work of the good fairies. The Celts believed elves inhabited the plant and called it “Elf-doc” and “Elfwort”. It was believed that burning the root on hot coals and inhaling it would enhance one’s intuitions. Elecampane was often hung in baby’s rooms as a blessing charm. In Germany, it was tradition to put a bloom of it in the middle of a bouquet to symbolize the Sun and the head of Odin. Helen of Troy was said to be holding a handful of Elecampane when Paris stole her away. Others say Elecampane sprung up from where her tears fell. It is for her that the species is named, helenium.
Elecampane is a light-dependent germinator and its seeds should be sprinkled onto the soil surface and gently pressed into place. It tends to have excellent germination within about 12 days from planting. It also can be propagated by off-sets, taken in the autumn from the older root with a bud or eye to each. Select a healthy piece of root that is about 2” long and contains a bud or eye. Plant each root cutting 12” deep and at least 12” apart. Water the planting area until the ground freezes and resume watering in the Spring to keep the soil moist, but not wet. These root segments should readily take root. Elecampane can also be propagated by dividing the large plants every few years.
Elecampane seedlings should be transplanted to the garden once they sprout two sets of leaves. Allow 18-24” between plants to allow for leaf spread.
Elecampane will grow best in partial shade but will tolerate full sun as well. It is not particular about soil type, as long as it is well-draining. The soil needs to be kept moist, but not wet until established. It is not particular about needing regular watering once established, but regular, deep watering will produce healthy roots for harvesting.
The plant can reach four to five feet in height so it does need some space to grow. It can look great when placed behind other plantings in the garden. Keep in mind that if you intend to harvest the roots, you will need to have access to them. The branching stems at the top of the plant hold numerous small flowers and it can get top heavy. The plant will continue growing unfazed if it does bend over to the ground, but you may want to stake the plant as it looks more attractive upright. The roots will still be harvestable either way.
Some say that slightly digging the roots in Autumn (lifting the plant slightly and loosening the soil slightly around the roots) will greatly promote the growth of the roots. The plant will reseed itself and spread, but not aggressively so.
Roots of the plant are harvested on 2- to 3- year old plants only, with many people preferring the 2-year old roots. Any older than this and the roots get pithy and woody and are not good for medicine making. Roots can be harvested when the stalks and attached leaves have already turned brown, typically mid-late October or even into November. A wide tongue pitch fork can be used to gently work the soil to loosen the roots. The roots should “pop” up fairly easily. A shovel can be used, but be sure to start digging at least 8” away from the crown and point the blade tip straight down into the ground. The risk of cutting off the roots is greater when using a shovel. Loose, fertile soil makes for easier harvesting. The initial cleaning of the roots can be done by spraying a steady stream of water from a hose at them, before bringing them inside for a more thorough cleaning. The roots can be squeezed by hand and broken apart and the tough outer skin peeled away to expose the clean, white root interior. Freshly harvested roots smell like Frankincense. The roots are much more potent in the Fall after the leaves have died back and the weather has grown cool. Once the roots are harvested, the remaining crown with emerging buds can be replanted. Breaking the crown into smaller portions, each containing a bud, results in better root development than replanting the entire crown whole does.
Elecampane flowers will go to seed in early Autumn. Seeds are contained within a quadrangular fruit that is crowned by a rind of pale-reddish hairs.
- Limited culinary uses
Elecampane tastes like it grows – very bold. It has a strong, bitter and aromatic flavor that people don’t always like right away. The roots were once candied and eaten as a confectionary in Medieval Europe. They were also once used in the making of absinthe in France and Switzerland. Upscale restaurants have been known to make a tonic out of honey-soaked Elecampane roots and preserved Lemon.
Elecampane has a long history of medicinal use. Europeans traditionally utilized the roots for medicine making while in China, the flowers have been traditionally used. It has a strong affinity for the respiratory system in particular, but also the digestive system, and the female reproductive system.
“Reclaiming your breath” is the esoteric offering of Elecampane and it is most known as an antiseptic expectorant. It is an herb that is good for dry, irritated throats and coughs and is considered an immune system stimulant. It is astringent and bitter and has been used to tonify the mucous tissues of the respiratory, gastrointestinal and urinary tract. The mucilage has a relaxing effect, while the essential oils bring about stimulation. It can sooth the irritation of respiratory tissues while also promoting expectoration. It is often used for particularly stuck or lingering infections in the lungs, such as bronchitis or pneumonia.
It is also considered a natural digestif. The roots are a great source for inulin which is a starch that healthy gut bacteria like to feed on. Up to 45% of the weight of the root is Inulin. Inulin is often called a “prebiotic” as it is food for “probiotics”. When you tincture the root, you can see the inulin as it settles in the bottom third of bottles and looks like a milky substance.
Since Elecampane is part of the Asteraceae family, it may cause allergic reactions in people who are sensitive to those plants. It may also cause contact dermatitis in some people. Large amounts of it may cause vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, and symptoms of paralysis. It has a history of being used to help expel afterbirth and should therefore be avoided in pregnancy or while breastfeeding.
Elecampane is native to Eurasia, from Spain to the Xinjiang Province in western China. It has become naturalized in parts of North America.