Elecampane (Inula helenium)

By Steph Zabel,
Herbalist, Ethnobotanist and Educator


I must admit, elecampane is one of my favorite herbs. But it is often an acquired taste, and many people don’t get past its surprisingly pungent and forceful flavor, eschewing it for more mellow-tasting herbs. However, once you give it a chance there are many gifts to be gained from this beautiful and healing plant.

 Photo by Radu_Privantu via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Radu_Privantu via Wikimedia Commons

Before we get to its use in herbalism, I want to note that elecampane is often planted in gardens due to its tall stature and beautiful flowers. It is a relative of the sunflower and you can see the resemblance in the cheery, long, yellow petals and in its graceful height. This plant will grow taller than a human! Elecampane takes its botanical name, Inula helenium, from the legend of Helen of Troy. Legend has it that the plant sprung up in the places where her tears fell when she was kidnapped from her home.

It can reach deep into the lungs and gets things moving again by clearing and releasing old infected mucus. Emotionally it is also used for grief and sadness that is stored in the lungs.

The pungent root is the part used in herbal medicine; it is harvested in the autumn when the plant is two or three years old. As alluded to above the taste of the fresh or dried root is strong: it imparts a bitter, spicy and warming flavor all at once.

Elecampane is most famous for its ability to strengthen and support the respiratory system. It is known as one of the best herbal expectorants for congested and stuck mucus in the chest, phlegm-y coughs, and for many respiratory infections, such as bronchitis. It can reach deep into the lungs and gets things moving again by clearing and releasing old infected mucus. Emotionally it is also used for grief and sadness that is stored in the lungs.

A strong antiseptic and bactericide that helps resolve bacterial infection elecampane will change thick, green, infected mucus to white or clear mucus. Old herbal writings also indicated the use of it for shortness of breath and swollen and inflamed respiratory conditions.

 Photo by Radu_Privantu via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Radu_Privantu via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to its wonderful respiratory properties, the bitter properties of the root stimulate the appetite, overall digestive function and help increase the flow of bile from the liver to the small intestine. Traditionally it was used for all sorts of digestive woes from intestinal parasites to stagnant digestion to imbalanced intestinal flora. In fact,  another amazing attribute of elecampane is that the root is a rich source of source of inulin. This is a storage carbohydrate found in some plants which feeds and supports healthy digestive flora, acting as a prebiotic, i.e. food for our good gut flora.

HOW TO USE:

➤ To make a decoction of the root, place 1 tablespoon dried root in 2 cups of water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil then lower to a simmer and cover. Let cook for 15 to 20 minutes, then strain out the root.

Note:  Avoid elecampane during pregnancy.

RECIPE: Elecampane Infused Honey

  • Fill a small glass jar 1/3 of the way full with cut, dried elecampane root. Cover completely with raw, local honey. Stir as best you can.
  • Cap with an air-tight lid, and label the jar with the ingredients and the date.
  • Let this mixture steep together for 2-4 weeks. You may want to flip the jar upside down every so often so that the root moves back and forth through the honey and does not stay clumped together in one spot.
  • Taste the honey at intervals to see when it has reached its desired strength.
  • To strain out the herb you may need to gently (very gently!) heat the honey in a warm water bath. The heat will loosen up the honey and allow the root to be strained out more easily. But you want to be sure not to heat it up too much or you will destroy much of the nutritional goodness in the raw honey.
  • Once the root is strained out, place in a glass jar and store in a dark cupboard.
  • Use this honey on its own or mixed into a hot cup of tea to help with coughs, colds and stuck congestion.

REFERENCES:

Botanical.com
RJWhelan.co.nz

PlanetHerbs.com

Steph Zabel, MSc, is an herbalist and educator who helps urban dwellers connect with the plant world.  She teaches herbal classes, is available for individual wellness consultations, and is also the founder of HERBSTALK, Boston’s community herbal conference.  Learn more about her work at: www.flowerfolkherbs.com and www.herbstalk.org.


This blog series — Herbs and Botanicals— is for general health information only. This Web site is not to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any health condition or problem. Users of this Web site should not rely on information provided on this Web site for their own health problems. Any questions regarding your own health should be addressed to your own physician or other healthcare provider.