The name is thought to derive from Greek ‘helenion’ meaning ‘Helen’ possibly from Helen of Troy. One story describes the plants growth from her tears. The common name is derived from two Latin words ‘inula campane’ meaning ‘of the fields’ (Phillips).
Podlech describes the natural habitat as fields and rough ground. Elecampane can be found growing throughout Western and Central Asia and Europe. It can also be found in the British Isles. Bremness suggests the plant prefers damp meadows and shady soils. It can grow up to 10ft.
Personally I think it will probably grow in most ground with a preference for damp soil and some shade. My own plant in the garden is around 5ft tall. It is in full sun for most of the day. I believe flowering would have lasted longer had my plant had a damper, slightly more shady spot. The flowers in this post are all from my garden in early July.
Manniche notes the Ancient Egyptians called species of Inula ‘fleabane’ and used it to combat fleas. They found it disliked by most animals. Mentioned in the Book of the Dead to drive away crocodiles. Pliny tells it was an antidote to poison. Apicius recommended elecampane as a condiment for digestion. Dioscorides mentions Egyptians used the root in a wine as a snake bite remedy.
Culpeper described Elecampane as hot and dry and wholesome for the stomach advising it would kill all worms in the belly. He described it as poison resistant and recommended it for shortness of breath and coughs. Used in an ointment for scabs and itching. Culpeper noted it would make the skin clear.
The Shakers called the herb Scabwort. They used the herb for itching as well as weakness in digestion. However, use was mainly for coughs and lung disease (Miller).
Mességué believes it one of the oldest plants used in healing noting it used in the Middle Ages in Athens and Rome for many respiratory conditions. The Germans reputedly made elecampane wine, an effective plague remedy, which they called ‘St Paul’s Potion’.
Mességué talks of being a child and his father using elecampane to treat and cure a child of whooping cough. A simple treatment with baths and infusions of elecampane. A wonderful example of the power of nature.
Many traditional uses relating to the respiratory and digestive systems are still common today. Bone includes asthma, bronchitis, catarrh, infections and influenza as indications. Elecampane, he describes, as a possible treatment for peptic ulcer disease and intestinal worms.
Frawley lists analgesic, antispasmodic, carminative, expectorant and rejuvenative in the list of actions. He indicates the herb for pleurisy, dyspepsia and nervous debility. If using as a diaphoretic expectorant he recommends combining use with ginger, cinnamon or cardamom. As a rejuvenating tonic he suggests combining with ashwagandha, comfrey root or marshmallow.
Indeed, Mességué too found elecampane to ease heartburn. He also found it sudorific.
and a little bit of science…
The root contains sesquiterpene lactones including alantolactone and isoaltantolactone (Bone). Menzies-Trull includes 44% inulin, terpenoids, sterols, resin, mucilage and up to 4% of volatile oil.
Pengelly states inulin helps stabilise blood sugar suggesting this herb may be useful in cases of hypoglycaemia. The constituent also has diuretic and immuno-stimulating properties. Alantolactone has an antibiotic action.
Bone quotes a favourable clinical study where children were given between 9-200 mg of alantolactone for Ascaris infestation. Ascaris is the common small roundworm. Culpeper did say it would kill all worms in the belly! It would be interesting to see a similar study using the whole herb rather than an extracted constituent. However I always enjoy finding an old traditional remedy backed up with some modern scientific evidence.
Mills highlights an investigation of essential oils from 22 plants. All had relaxant effects on tracheal smooth muscle. One of the most potent was the root of elecampane highlighting the antispasmodic property of the herb.
… and a word of caution…
Sesquiterpene lactones are believed to cause contact dermatitis in some individuals. Care should be taken when collecting this plant. These constituents are more common in the Asteraceae family.
Patients with hypoglycaemia or diabetes are well advised to seek the advice of a medical herbalist prior to taking this plant medicine.
… and some energetics…
Culpeper described Elecampane a herb of Mercury and hot and dry in the third degree. However, Tobyn interprets Culpeper as finding it to be a hot and moist loosening medicine with a relaxing effect on membranes and ligaments, muscles and tendons. I would agree that it is definitely more moistening rather than drying.
Frawley describes Elecampane as Kapha reducing. He cautions use in high Pitta conditions, presumably due to the heating effect of the herb. Energetically he describes elecampane as pungent, bitter and heating and indeed there is a slight pungent bitter taste which may possibly relate to its effect on the digestive system. The pungency most likely adds to the general warmth of this herb.
Simply looking at the flowerhead of elecampane, like a large sunshine and rays, gives a warm, relaxing feeling. Don’t you agree?