- Family Asteraceae (formerly Compositae)
- Inula helenium
- Alant, Elfdock, Elfwort, Horse-Elder, Horseheal, Scabwort, Wild Sunflower, Yellow Starwort, Velvet Dock
- It can be severely irritating to mucous membranes and strongly sensitizing.
- Not to be used during pregnancy.
Native to southeastern Europe and western Asia, the herb has since been introduced to many temperate regions, including parts of North America. The plant is a perennial that grows to about ten feet in height, producing golden yellow, daisy-like flowers and preferring moist, well-drained soil. The leaves are up to eighteen inches long, pointed, coarsely toothed, and green with downy, gray undersides. The stem is thick, hairy, ridged, round, and green, and filled with a white spongy pith. The roots are thick and tuberous, and, when dried, have the aroma of peppermint. In the autumn, the roots are unearthed, cut up, and then dried at a high temperature.
Helen of Troy was believed to have been gathering the herb when she was abducted by Paris. This story resulted in its botanical name.
The root contains a sweet, starchy substance called inulin which is responsible for its popularity as a type of crystallized candy. Pliny stated that no day passed that the Empress Julia Augusta did not eat some of the candied root to help her “digestion and cause mirth”.
Inulin was first isolated from elecampane in 1804, and took its name from the botanical name for the herb. It has mucilaginous qualities that help soothe the bronchial linings.
In the Middle Ages, apothecaries sold the candied root in flat, pink, sugary cakes, which were sucked on to alleviate asthma and indigestion, and to sweeten the breath.
In ancient China, large-leafed plants were grown under scholars’ windows so they could listen to different sounds of rain. It is still used in a similar manner in temperate climates.
A story is told by Stephen Blake in his Complete Gardener’s Practice of 1664. He suggested one use for the plant — “to be revenged on a person who steals your flowers, sprinkle dry powdered elecampane root on clove gillyflowers, give to the party, who will delight to smell it, and when they draw the powder into their nostrils they will fall a sneezing until the tears run down their thighs”. (Bremness)
A medieval saying was “Elecampane will the spirits sustain”, which reflected the herb’s tonic properties.
The Greeks and Romans considered it as a cure-all for such diverse ailments as dropsy, digestive upsets, menstrual disorders, and sciatica.
The Anglo-Saxons used it as a tonic, for skin diseases, and for leprosy.
By the 19th century, it was used to treat all the above, plus neuralgia and liver problems.
The Algonquin, Cherokee, Delaware, Iroquois, and others have long used this herb to treat various respiratory problems, including tuberculosis, asthma, and the common cold. Scientists have now verified that it exhibits significant activity against Mycobacterium tuberculosis and does improve digestion. In fact, the Delaware made a tonic from the root to strengthen digestive organs.
- digestive stimulant
- increases sweating
- mildly bitter
- soothes coughing
- inulin (up to 44%)
- volatile oil (up to 4% of alantol and sesquiterpene lactones, including alantolactone)
- triterpene saponins (dammaranedienol)
- possible alkaloids
- vitamins and minerals (especially niacin and thiamin, magnesium, zinc, and calcium)
Alantolactone is a constituent thought to be anti-inflammatory, but it also reduces mucous secretions and stimulates the immune system.
The volatile oil is known to be partly responsible for an expectorant action,as well as for its antiseptic qualities.
Chinese research has demonstrated mild antibacterial properties, as well as a stimulant effect on the nervous system, digestion, and adrenal cortex.
A decoction from the root is used for irritable coughs, bronchitis, asthma, upper respiratory problems, or as a digestive aid.
Decoctions from the flowers are used to treat nausea, vomiting, or coughs with copious amounts of phlegm, and, when combined with licorice, helps ease nausea, abdominal distension, flatulence, and vomiting of mucus.
Tinctures are used for bronchitis or chronic respiratory complains and sometimes mixed with thyme tincture for added effect.
Syrups are made from infusions or decoctions of roots and flowers and used for coughs.
Washes from the decoction or diluted tincture for eczema, rashes, and varicose ulcers.
The roots have long been used as a gentle warming tonic, particularly useful for chronic bronchitis and other respiratory problems. The whole herb has a stimulant, expectorant effect, which encourages the coughing up of mucus from the lungs.
The Chinese uses the flowers from its species (I. japonica — Xuan fu hua) to treat asthma and bronchitis with excessive phlegm, as well as for acid reflux and vomiting.
The herb is also taken as a tonic for the digestion, stimulating the appetite and relieving dyspepsia.
It has long been used in the treatment of intestinal worms.
It combines well with other antiseptic herbs and is used for such infections as flu and tonsillitis. Its restorative, tonic action complements its ability to counter infection.
It is used as a sugar substitute in the treatment of diabetes.