Elecampane: reclaiming your breath

Latin: Inula helenium

Family: Asteraceae or Compositae

Folk names: elfdock or elf-doc (Danish), elfwort, scabwort, olandswartzel (PA Dutch), alantwurzel (German), wild sunflower, horseheal, horse elder, nurseheal, velvetdock, yellow starwort, marchalan (Welsh), Ailleann or creamh (Gaelic), Alant, Allicampane, Enula campana, aunee

Energetics: warming, drying

Properties: antiseptic, antiviral, antibacterial, anti-amoebic, diaphoretic, antitussive, expectorant, demulcent, nutritive, carminative, vermifuge, anthelmintic, emmenagogue, diuretic, diaphoretic, anesthetic, cholagogue

Taste: bitter, pungent

Parts used: rootstock dug in fall of 2nd or 3rd year; flowers in TCM

Degree: 2nd, 3rd

Tissue state: depression, stagnation, atrophy

Key uses: deep-seated respiratory infections; persistent, stubborn wet or dry cough; tuberculosis, bronchitis; asthma; fever with chills; stagnant digestion, intestinal parasites, and GI colic; convalescence and malnutrition; stagnant lymph; homesickness

History, Herblore & Tradition
The Greek beauty, Helen of Troy, whose countenance was beautiful enough to launch a thousand ships, is said to have carried this flower in her hair as she was abducted from her homeland. The legend tells us that she was so heartbroken to be taken from Sparta, one of these plants emerged wherever her tears fell. Before Linnaeus had his way, the plant was known as “Enula campana”, Helen of the plains. Another story claims that the plant originated on the island of Helena, which boasted the most desirable crop of elecampane. Elecampane was a food and a medicine in ancient times. It was a panacea plant for the ancient Greeks and Romans, used for everything from dropsy and uterine disorders to digestive and respiratory complaints. Galen recommended the use of the root for sciatica relief, or what he called “passions of the hucklebone.” Pliny advised us to eat some of the root every day to “help digestion and cause mirth.” According to Hippocrates, it was stimulating to the kidneys, brain, uterus, and stomach. “Potio Paulina” (drink of Paul the apostle) was a digestive wine in which elecampane was an ingredient, and it was a favorite cordial of the monks. A European traditional preparation was to infuse the root in port with currants and sugar for its digestive and anti-parasitic properties. France and Switzerland use elecampane in distilling absinthe. Culpeper liked it to “warm a cold and windy stomach”, as a diuretic, and to “fasten the teeth”, while Gerard used it for shortness of breath. The root was also candied and eaten as a treat which doubled as a remedy for whooping cough. Children of the Renaissance looked forward to Easter Monday every year because they received sweet drinks and confections containing elecampane and licorice. In the colonies, elecampane was cultivated for use in respiratory and digestive problems, as well as an emmenagogue or abortifacient. By the 19th century, the Eclectics had adopted the plant into their materia medica, and it was included in the US Pharmacopeia of 1890. King’s Dispensatory describes elecampane as…

…an aromatic stimulant and tonic, and is much used in chronic pulmonary affections and weakness of the digestive organs.
Night-sweats are relieved by Inula, as are some cases of humid asthma, and, by its tonic properties, it tends to sustain the strength of the patient in chronic disorders of the respiratory tract. Inula is somewhat slow in action, and should be used for quite a time to get its full action. That it is an important remedy in irritation of the trachea and bronchiae is now well established. It is adapted to cases with free and abundant expectoration, teasing cough, and pain beneath the sternum, conditions frequent in the grippe, and the severer forms of colds. (Felter & Lloyd, 1898)

Dr. Beach said of elecampane, “It is an excellent article in coughs and colds, pulmonary irritation and chronic bronchitis” (Eclectic Review, 1912). The Pennsylvania Dutch refer to the plant as “olandswartzel” in their dialect (from the German “alantwurzel”) and have used the root as a preventative to yellow fever and plague. Not only do they use it to treat respiratory illness in humans, but it is one of their most trusted remedies for a coughing horse. This use for the herb was probably gleaned from Native Americans who used the root to treat equine respiratory ailments. European colonists cultivated the plant here to treat respiratory illness and scabby skin eruptions in their horses and sheep (hence the folk names horseheal and scabwort). The PA Dutch also infused the root in wine and beer. It was also cooked down into a syrup with the following recipe:

One handful each of elecampane, dogwood bark, wild cherry bark, and hops, added to two quarts of water and boiled down to one quart. Add one pound of sugar and boil down to a pint. Take several teaspoons every day. (The Red Church or the Art of Pennsylvania German Braucherei, by C.R. Bilardi)

TCM uses elecampane to strengthen spleen and stomach. Not only was it used for mucus in the lungs, but mucus affecting any part of the digestive tract as well. Nausea and loss of appetite after chemotherapy is often remedied by elecampane flowers. A popular preparation for elecampane flowers in TCM is to soak them in honey and fry them (Lesley Tierra). The Ayurvedic tradition uses elecampane for respiratory complaints and rheumatism as well as skin problems including bites and stings.

Inula was a medicine chest plant for Native Americans who used it for tuberculosis, general respiratory support (for humans and horses), a gastrointestinal aid, an analgesic for chest pains, rheumatism, as a cathartic, a vulnerary, a diaphoretic, for stroke, and “for female obstructions and pregnant women with weak bowels and wombs.” (Cherokee Plants and Their Uses, Hamel, Chiltosky, 1975)

As a magical herb, elecampane has a strong connection with the realm of elves and fae folk. The common names “elf-doc” and “elfwort” come from the old Celtic belief that elves inhabited the plant. A person experiencing a general sapping of energy was said to have been “elfshot.” Today, this would translate to symptoms of chronic fatigue. Elfshot was also a term for sharp, shooting, localized pains, as if an elf were shooting them with tiny invisible arrows (muscle cramps, gas pains). In addition to using the plant as physical medicine, it was believed that stabbing the root of elecampane would render the elves’ mischievous magic powerless. Scattering the dried root about the home would also attract the work of the good fairies. The root is also burned on hot coals to tune into one’s clairvoyance and intuitions or hung as a blessing charm in a baby’s room.

Botany & Ecology
Inula helenium is a tall herbaceous perennial (to zone 3) with a rigid, hairy stem. Relatively small sunflower-like blossoms top the 3-6 foot stems and bloom from May to August. The large leaves have toothed margins and a downy or bristly covering. Smaller leaves towards the top of the plant are heart shaped and clasp the stem. It likes moist, well-draining soils in part sun, often found at the edges of pastures, fencerows, and woodlines. The thick rootstock is whitish and fleshy, having a camphorous odor. The plant has naturalized in the eastern United States from North Carolina to Nova Scotia, but is native to Europe and Asia.

Clinical Use
Elecampane is used in modern herbalism as a general warming and stimulating remedy that gets things moving. Whether it’s stuck mucus in the lungs, a delayed period, sluggish digestion, a low, slow burning fever, or fluid retention, elecampane is a well-suited plant. First and foremost, it is used in cases of respiratory distress where the person cannot cough deeply enough to bring up the offending mucus. “After giving Inula the cough descends deep enough to bring forth this mucus” (Wood). Not only does it act as an expectorant, but as an anesthetic for the chest pain of persistent coughing and to soothe the throat tickle that instigates the cough.

In addition to the plant’s bitter constituents which aid in digestion, the plant has a high inulin content (much like burdock, chicory, garlic, onions, leeks, dandelion root, and jerusalem artichokes), which is an insoluble fiber that acts as a prebiotic to our gut flora. In this way, the plant is nutritive and restorative to persons with poor assimilation or who may be suffering from gut dysbiosis. It’s also an antifungal, useful in treating Candida overgrowth in the gut. By supporting gut integrity, elecampane is also supporting the immune system, because the gut is where we take in and assimilate our outside world. With the help of insulin-like growth factor (IGF), inulin provides sustenance to the body’s tissues without spiking the blood sugar (Wood). Interestingly enough, an old Gaelic name for this plant is “creamh”, which was kind of a catch-all for other inulin-containing plants, including leeks and garlic. (Gaelic Names of Plants, Cameron, 1883). Elecampane also acts on the intestines as a remedy for Giardia and other intestinal parasites (Winston).

Because the plant is antiseptic, it can be applied topically as a fomentation, oil, or diluted tincture for eczema, itching, scabs, sores, and “proud flesh” that refuses to scab over. The plant has been known to cause contact dermatitis in some people, though.

From this overall picture of elecampane, we can see the constitution that it fits. Elecampane can act as a stimulant for damp, phlegmatic, kapha people with stagnant lymphatics (Wood).

In homeopathy, Inula is used for diabetes, bronchial infections, and “bearing down” sensations in the pelvis similar to labor pains (Herbalpedia). It’s also for numerous sharp, stabbing pains, especially if they are mostly on the right side, for violent tickling of the larynx, for cramps in the calves while sleeping, and strangely enough, lascivious dreams (National Center for Homeopathy).

Energetically, the flower essence is used for irrational fear that scares the breath out of you and leaves you stuck in fight or flight (Fox Mountain). It can also make you feel more comfortable being yourself in social situations, giving you a stronger sense of identity. It also helps you integrate new information and experiences (Freedom Flowers).

Inula helenium as an alcoholic extract was shown to be significantly effective against Staphylococcus species in vitro. An ethanol extract of I. helenium was shown in vitro to have an anthelmintic effect against gastrointestinal worms. The essential oil of the root was also shown to have a significant antifungal effect against several species of Candida in vitro; stronger than that of tea tree or bergamot. The results of a 1998 in vitro study support the traditional use of elecampane effectively treating tuberculosis. The experiment demonstrated that an extract of elecampane root was very effective in inhibiting the bacteria that causes tuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis).

A 2011 study from China concluded that sesquiterpene lactones isolated from the roots of I. helenium and flowers of I. japonica significantly inhibited the growth of gynecologic cancer cells in vitro.

In this double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study of 54 volunteers, 10g of inulin a day for 8 weeks resulted in significantly reduced insulin levels and lowered triglycerides. All the subjects in the study were healthy middle-aged men and women with moderately raised levels of triglycerides. Other small human studies have concluded that supplementing with inulin can positively alter the gut microbiome. Elecampane root is very high in inulin (up to 45%), and based on these conclusions, could be used as a functional food.

A study in the British Medical Journal in 1891 concluded that a constituent of elecampane, helenine, had a protective action against guinea pigs infected with tuberculosis. The researcher also concludes by saying “I do not think I am justified in saying that any one of the constituents of elecampane root possesses greater value than the mixed product; probably this would meet all the requirements of clinical experiment.” This is a rare sentiment to encounter in modern research when whole plants have been reduced to single constituents and are mostly ignored as complete beings.

Chemical Constituents
Up to 45% polysaccharide inulin, resins, pectin, mucilage, calcium, magnesium, iodine, iron and sodium, vitamins A, C, E, vitamin B12, vitamin B5, beta-carotene, selenium and niacin, bitter principles, sterols (sitosterol, stigmasterol), saponins, possible alkaloids and volatile oils which are composed of sesquiterpene lactones such as: alantolactone, isoalantolactone, dihydroisoalantolactone, dihydroalantolactone, elemane, azulene, helenin and isocostunolide.

Warnings & Contraindications
Because of its traditional use as an emmenagogue, it is suggested that elecampane should not be used during pregnancy or lactation. Diabetics should keep a closer eye on their blood sugar while taking elecampane. Though not common, the herb may cause contact dermatitis in sensitive individuals. Large doses can be emetic or cathartic, or even paralytic.

Dosages & Preparations
Tincture: fresh root 1:2, dry root 1:5, 60%, 10-30 drops 4x/day
Tea: strong decoction, 2-6oz, 3x/day (Moore)
As a syrup: a strong decoction, reduced by half, and add an equal amount of honey. Take 1-3 tsp 4x/day.

My own thoughts on elecampane…

Admittedly, I do not have much experience using this herb for its energetic properties. I’ve only used it in formula in cough and cold elixirs and made a simple tincture with the dried root. I intentionally wanted to try to tune in to the energetic properties of the plant before I looked to see what other herbalists and flower essence repertories indicated. Here is what elecampane said to me (in a somewhat stream-of-consciousness conversation)…

“I am for “fernweh” or farsickness- when you are homesick for a place you’ve never been. A longing for one’s ancestral home, felt deep on a cellular level. Our generation’s lack of ritual and rite of passage results in a search for meaning in our culture and is a cry for our foremothers and forefathers to hold us and tell us the stories. For healing the disconnect from our roots that our modern culture has diluted over the generations. The essence of this plant can help to begin to heal the deep and longing ache some of us feel for our ancestral homes. For Helen’s grief and longing, seated in her lungs. Longsuffering of grief being continually stuffed down- this is either self-imposed or simply because we’ve never had a safe place to unload- manifesting as chronic respiratory illness. Places we’ve never been sometimes call to us from the depths of our DNA; places we’ve been separated from by the chasms of time and the turmoil of generations. The grief suffered by our ancestors still echoes in our present bodies. Perhaps elecampane can help us to tune in to these echoes and reconnect with the customs and rituals that we long for. Not only an essence of the flowers, but of the root AND flowers- to assist in re-rooting yourself- either in what is your new physical, geographical home, or to re-root yourself in a new “knowing” of yourself. I can begin to clear generations of grief and give you back your breath, and your breath is what gives you space, presence, and voice in this physical realm.”

…holy crap. This hit me like a ton of bricks. I have long felt that I am only partially rooted in this place and time. The pull of a faraway home is constantly tugging at my toes like the ebb of the tide pulling the grains of sand out from under my feet, inviting me out to a mysterious sea. After reading what other practitioners say of this plant, it’s the breath that seems to be the common thread. Sean Donahue says the plant is for those who have never felt at home in their own surroundings to begin with. “Often, those who feel they’ve been born into the wrong body and time can lead to feeling broken, powerless, and insufficient.” He goes on to talk about emotion being stuffed down into the lungs, and how elecampane gave him breath which gave him life and power. And then there’s the flower essence indications, which parallel a lot of what I got from the plant.

Written by Ruthie Hayes