A practical guide for nutritional and traditional health care.
Elecampane (botanical name Inula helenium) is a tall, bristly perennial plant that is native to south-eastern Europe and western Asia. This herb, which bears yellow flowers resembling the daisy, has been naturalized in North America and is found growing in abundance in the moist meadows, fields and along the roads in the central and eastern regions of the United States and neighbouring Canada. Elecampane belongs to the Asteraceae family and grows up to a height of four to six feet. The herb has a heavy branching stem that emerges from a basal rosette (a circular arrangement of leaves at the base) with leaves that are large, oval shaped and pointed at the end. The herb bears vivid yellow flower heads during the period between the middle to the end of the summer. The flower heads of elecampane are generally four inches in diameter and appear like diminutive sunflowers. The root of this plant is large, weighty and elongated. While the exterior of the root is yellowish, the color changes to white inside. The roots of elecampane are medicinally useful and release an aroma akin to violets in blossom.
The elecampane herb is also commonly known as ‘Horseheal' and ‘Scabwort' - both names derived from the plant's original medical use. The herb was used to treat horses and, hence, the name ‘Horseheal'. In ancient time, veterinary practitioners used the herb to treat pulmonary ailments in horses. On the other hand, the plant's usefulness in healing scabs on sheep gave it the name ‘Scabwort'. The Latin classical name for elecampane is Inula.
Elecampane is an attractive herb with leaves bearing a resemblance to those of the mullein herb, while the blooms appear as petite sunflowers. The herb grows naturally all over Europe and in the temperate climatic regions of Asia and can be found in area extending in so far as north-western India and southern Siberia. In North America, the herb is found growing in the wild in region extending from Nova Scotia to North Carolina and again towards the west to Missouri. This is one of the tall herbs that may grow up to a maximum height of six feet.
The stem of elecampane plant is heavy having deep grooves and it branches out at the top. The base of the plant is covered with a rosette of big, oval-shaped leaves that grow up to one to 1 ½ feet long and four inches in width. The leaves comprising the rosette at the base of the elecampane herb are soft and silky with jagged borders. On the other hand, the elecampane leaves that grow on the plant's stem are comparatively shorter and wider and usually hold on to the stem. The plant bears vivid yellow flowers appearing on outsized terminal heads. The flowers have a diameter varying from three to four inches. The root of the plant resembles a rhizome. These tuber-like roots of elecampane are large, juicy and branch out. The roots release an aroma resembling violets in bloom (as mentioned before).
Propagating the herb from its offshoots and/ or root cuttings is the best way to grow elecampane. The root cuttings, which should be ideally two inches in length, are usually done from mature plants during autumn. The root cuttings need to be covered with somewhat damp, sandy soil and preserved in a room having a steady temperature around 50°F and 60°F during the winter months. By the time it is spring, the root cuttings will develop new shoots and they may be planted in their permanent positions outdoors once the threat of frosting is over. For ideal growth of the plants, the root cuttings with shoots need to be positioned in spaced out rows three feet from one another and there ought to be an approximate distance of 18 inches between two plants. Alternately, elecampane may also be propagated from its seeds without much trouble. Growing elecampane from its roots is best for indoors and in a cold frame during the early phase of spring. Even when the plants are grown from seeds indoors, they need to be transplanted outdoors once the risk of frosting is over. Generally, the elecampane herbs have a preference for a clay loam that is damp and also in damp soils with a good drainage system. The plants also have the aptitude to grow in partial shades.
Of all the parts of the elecampane, its roots are used for treating various conditions. As mentioned earlier, the roots of the herb are collected during the second autumn of the plant's existence - precisely after it has withered two frosting seasons. In fact, the roots of the herb are regarded to be effective for remedial purposes only in the second year of their growth. In primordial Rome, people used the medication prepared with elecampane roots to treat indigestion following a sumptuous meal in a banquet. The herb became a part of traditional medication when the people of ancient Rome and Greece used it as a remedy for cold, as they believed that it helped perspiration and also to be effective in drawing out phlegm. During the 19 the century, people boiled the elecampane roots in sugar solution to prepare cough syrups and lozenges to cure asthma. Some people consumed these sugary roots simply as candy.
The roots of elecampane initially taste slightly sticky, but subsequently it becomes aromatic after chewing them for some time. In addition, the roots are also somewhat bitter and overpowering and possess a pleasant scent something like the odour of camphoraceous orris.
People in earlier days also considered the elecampane roots to be beneficial for the stomach. In fact, the Romans used it regularly to overcome indigestion. Later on, elecampane became the principal herbal element in a digestive wine prepared during the medieval period known as potio Paulina or the ‘drink of Paul'. In fact, ‘drink of Paul' referred to St. Paul's instructions recorded in the Bible regarding the use of a small amount of wine for the health of the stomach - ‘use a little wine for thy stomach's sake'.
Apart from the herb being beneficial for the stomach, the bright yellow blooms of the elecampane made it an attractive garden plant. However, the early European settles in North America did not cultivate the plant for either of these virtues. On the contrary, they grew the plant for its remedial value in treating skin ailments, especially on horses and sheep. The roots of the herb were widely popular for treating pulmonary diseases in horses and scabs on sheep. Such veterinary use of the herb gave it its common names - ‘Horseheal' and ‘Scabwort'. In addition, the roots of elecampane were also used to treat humans, especially respiratory ailments. Interesting enough, this is one reason why the herb was once catalogued in the United States Pharmacopeia!
Since time immemorial elecampane has been regarded as an effective remedy against respiratory disease and as a stimulating herb for the respiratory system. The herb has a warming impact on the lungs along with its aptitude to tenderly invigorate coughing up or drawing out phlegm (clearing the chest of mucus accumulation) rendered elecampane a harmless medication for the young as well as the old. The herb may be utilized for nearly all chest problems and is highly effective when the patient is weak or incapacitated.
The remedial properties of elecampane have resulted in its specific use for curing chronic bronchitis and bronchial asthma. The herb is especially effective in these conditions since it not only relieves the linings of the bronchial tube, but is also a useful expectorant. Besides these virtues, elecampane has a somewhat bitter flavour that facilitates recuperation by perking up the digestive system as well as in the absorption of ingested nourishments by the body.
For ages, people have been taking preparations made with elecampane roots to stimulate the digestive process. The herb promotes appetite and, at the same time alleviates dyspepsia (stomach upset). In addition, the herb is also effective to treat and flush out worms from the body.
Long back, practitioners of herbal medicine prescribed formulations prepared with the elecampane root to treat tuberculosis. Elecampane has the aptitude to blend suitably with further antiseptic herbs and, hence, it is still used to cure contagions like flu and tonsillitis. The herb has curative properties, while its tonic action harmonizes with elecampane's capability to offset infections.
Other medical uses
Habitat and cultivation
Elecampane is indigenous to Eurasia, especially south-eastern Europe and western Asia, but now has been naturalized in various temperate climatic zones, which includes several regions of North America, particularly the United States. Apart from the naturally growing elecampane, the plant is also cultivated for its remedial properties. Elecampane may be propagated by root division or from its seeds during spring. The plant has a preference for damp and well-drained soil. The root of the herb, which actually possesses all the medicinal properties of the plant, is harvested in autumn, sliced into pieces and dehydrated at high temperatures. While the herb is no longer popular in England and largely not cultivated there, people in other countries of the continent, such as Germany, Holland and Switzerland still continue to cultivate elecampane for its medicinal properties. In fact, the herb is still cultivated extensively close to the German township of Colleda, which is near Leipzig.
The elecampane herb thrives well in locations that are damp and shady and also grows well in the common garden soil. However, the plant thrives best when the soil is rich and loamy with the ground being moist, but having a proper drainage system.
It takes little effort to grow the elecampane plants. If you are propagating the plant with its seeds, it is best to sow the mature seeds in cold frames or outdoors during the spring. Nevertheless, the best way to propagate elecampane is to use root cuttings from mature plants with an eye or bud. The root cuttings are normally done during autumn. Each root cutting should be approximately two inches in length and they need to be covered with somewhat moist sandy soils immediately after harvesting. During the winter months, the root cutting should be preserved in room under a consistent temperature ranging between 50°F and 60°F. These roots grow roots quite easily and develop new shoots by the next spring. Once the frosting period is over, these root cuttings with new shoots may be planted in their permanent positions outdoors. The root cutting need to be planted in rows about three feet apart and the plants should have a distance of about 12 inches to 18 inches from one another. After placing the root cuttings in their permanent position, it is necessary to keep the ground free of weeds. The soil around the plantation should be dug up a little during the following summer with a view to augment the root growth. Usually, the roots are ready for use during the second autumn of their existence. It may be noted here that elecampane roots are medically viable only when they are two years old.
A good stock of elecampane plants may also be obtained by slicing the roots into small sections, each measuring two inches long, and covering them with luxuriant, light, sandy soil and preserving them in mild temperatures during the winter month. The elecampane plants cannot withstand frosting and, hence, care should be taken to protect them during this season. In fact, even after they are planted outdoors, they may require protection from frosts during the first year of their existence.
Way back in 1804, scientists were able to segregate inulin from elecampane for the first time and the substance derived its name from the herb. Inulin has been found to possess the property of secreting mucous (mucilaginous) and this aspect of the substance facilitates in soothing the linings of the bronchial tubes.
Alantolactone: Alantolactone found in elecampane is believed to possess anti-inflammatory properties. In addition, this element inhibits the secretion of mucous and invigorates the immune system.
In general, elecampane possesses a tonic, expectorant impact and stimulates drawing out cough formed by the mucus secretions from the lungs. The tonic and expectorant properties of elecampane are attributed to the volatile oil enclosed by the herb as well as the antiseptic aspects of the herb.
In fact, in 1804, Valentine Rose of Berlin found that elecampane encloses plenty of the substance known as inulin. While Valentine names the substance Alantin derived from the plant's German name Alantwurzel and French name Aunée, by and large the name inulin proposed by botanist Thompson was accepted. The chemical composition of inulin is similar to that of starch, but to some degree it is also opposite of starch. In effect, inulin replaces starch in the root system of Compositae (plants with heads made up of several florets). While the plant is living, inulin easily disbands in the diluted sap and when the plants are dead and dried, this substance accumulates in the cells as shapeless heaps that are inactive in polarized light. Although inulin and starch appear to be alike, the former differs from starch as it releases a yellow color, rather than blue, when it interacts with iodine. In addition, inulin also differs from starch in a number of ways - when it dissolves in boiling water, it does not form any paste, as in the case of starch, and it remains unchanged when it sediments after the water solution cools down. Moreover, unlike starch, inula does not produce any volatile compound when it interacts with nitric acid. However, when inula is heated for a long period or reacts with watered down acids, it first transforms into inulin and then to levulin eventually changing to levulose. Inula somewhat transforms into sugar when it is fermented.
In 1864, Julius von Sachs demonstrated that it is possible to hasten the extraction of inulin in globular mass of needle-shaped crystalline form by submerging the elecampane roots either in alcohol or glycerine.
In fact, the quantity of inulin present in elecampane differs depending on the season, but is found in maximum amount during autumn. Hence, the plant is harvested during autumn. In 1870, Hans Drangendorff made inulin a subject of a highly comprehensive dissertation. He, however, acquired the root of elecampane during October and hence, it had approximately 44 per cent of the substance. In spring, the herb contains a mere 19 per cent of inulin as much of it is substituted by or transformed into levulin, mucilage, sugar and different glucosides. It has been found that inulin is extensively dispersed in the perennial roots of Compositae and is naturally present in Goodeniaceae, Campanulacae, Stylidiaceae and Lobeliaceae. In addition, the substance is also found occurring naturally in the root of the White Ipecacuanha, belonging to the class of Violaceae, mostly found in Brazil.
It has been found that inulin is intimately related to inulenin in elecampane. Inulin may be obtained in the form of microscopic needles that have an aptitude to dissolve in cold water and diluted alcohol, while pseudo-inulin that is found in the form of uneven grains and are highly soluble in hot water. Pseudo-inulin also dissolves in diluted and warm alcohol, but does not dissolve in chilled alcohol.
In the early 1660, Le Febre noticed when the elecampane roots are exposed to refinement using water, it formed a substance that could be turned into crystals at the top of the receiver and comparable crystals could be detected when thin segments of the herb's roots are heated watchfully; Le Febre also observed that the crystals were formed like natural blooming on the exterior of the roots that have been left unattended for prolonged periods. The efflorescence formed on the outer side of the roots was believed to be a separate body called helenin or elecampane camphor. However, studies undertaken by Kallen in 1874 demonstrated that the efflorescence could be identified as two different substances that had the aptitude to form crystals. Kallen named these two different crystallisable substances as Helenin, a mass having no essence or hue, and Alantcamphor, which possessed a flavour and scent similar to peppermint. Further research on the subject, discovered that the crystalline substance formed by elecampane roots following distillation with water in the ratio of 1:2 per cent and related with approximately 1 per cent of the unstable oil enclosed by the herb, actually comprises alantolactone, iso-alantolactone as well as alantolic acid. All these substances are crystalline in form, having a near monochrome, but possess a slight scent and essence. The oily part of the distillate known as alantol is a dull fluid possessing a scent similar to peppermint.
As discussed earlier, of all its parts, only the tuber roots and sometimes the petite yellow flowers of elecampane are used for remedial purposes. Several preparations made with the elecampane roots, such as tincture, decoction, syrup and wash, are used to treat different conditions. On the other hand, the flowers of the herb are only used to prepare a decoction.
A wine prepared with elecampane roots and other ingredients, especially alcoholic beverages, is useful in expelling worms and other parasites from the intestines. The following ingredients are required to prepare this vermifuge wine:
Soak the chopped elecampane root in alcohol for about a week in an amber-hued jar and store it in a dark place. After a week of maceration, add the red wine and sugar to the solution and leave the solution for about a month, shaking the jar at regular intervals. After a month has passed, filter the solution and store it in a clean glass jar. The herbal wine prepared is aromatic and possesses aperients (mildly laxative), digestive and stimulant properties. Take the wine in dosage of one ounce (25 ml) in a liqueur glass prior to meals for three successive days. After taking the wine for three days, give a break for 10 days and continue taking it for another three consecutive days. Repeat this treatment thrice. Here is a word of caution - it is advisable not to drink this preparation if you have an ulcer, are suffering from diarrhea or are in the initial stage of pregnancy for it may cause undesirable side effects.