by Rose Casey
This is one herb I wouldn’t want to be without. In fact, I consider it a primary herbal medicinal in my pantry. It has a long history and was commonly cultivated in the medieval times. Elecampane easily grows in a garden. Just provide it some fertile soil, part shade to full sun and moisture with good drainage. Let’s take a closer look at this marvelous, healing plant.
Elecampane likes a fertile, moist ground with good drainage. I’ve grown Elecampane in different parts of the garden from sun to partial shade. I find that the most vibrant plants and roots seem more productive in fertile soil that is not compacted. Keep in mind that Elecampane can reach 4 to 5 feet in height. It needs some space. That said, however, I’ve grown Elecampane nestled amidst other plantings. Just allow about 24 inches between plants for the leaf spread.
It has a sturdy main stalk. However, the extra branching stems at the top that hold the numerous smaller flower heads tend to weight it over a bit. It helps to provide some sort of staking although I don’t worry about it too much. Many times the plant will just “catch” itself on a neighboring plant and not fall completely to the ground. It doesn’t hurt the plant if bends to the ground. It’s just more attractive upright. The roots are still harvestable either way.
I first got my start growing Elecamapne by planting seeds I purchased from Horizon Herbs. I followed Richo Cech’s directions in their catalog back in 2005 to “Sow seeds in greenhouse in early spring or sow directly in garden in mid-spring. (Note: I start my seeds in the basement under lights because I don’t have a greenhouse and it worked great) Light-dependent germinator (plant on surface or only very shallowly covered, so light can penetrate). Expect excellent germination in about 12 days. (Note: I planted my seed indoors and barely covered the seed and had seedlings up and running in seven days – really easy seeds to start.)
Maude Grieve in A Modern Herbal suggests various propagation techniques. “It is easily cultivated. Seeds may be sown, either when ripe, in cold frames, or in spring in the open. It is best propagated, however, by off-sets, taken in the autumn from the old root, with a bud or eye to each. These will take root very readily, and should be planted in rows about a foot asunder, and 9 or 10 inches distant in the rows. In the following spring, the ground should be kept clean from weeds, and if slightly dug in autumn, it will greatly promote the growth of the roots, which be for use after two years’ growth. By cutting the root into pieces about 2 inches long, covering with rich, light, sandy soil and keeping in gentle heat during the winter, a good stock of plants can also be obtained.”
I’ve used sturdy tomato cages in the past and more recently tried placing a couple of wooden stakes around the base and then tying the stalk as it grows upward.
Below is a very stately growing Elecampane with its large leaves. The leaves are coarser on top (and green) compared to the underside of the leaf that has a downy appearance and softer to the touch. This particular plant is about ready to shoot up several flower bearing stems. As one can imagine, Elecampane works well behind other plantings in the garden. Although, I wouldn’t dismiss the idea of providing it a central location in a garden pallet. Kind of like an arrangement in a floral bouquet. I’ve grown it both ways. Keep in mind wherever you decide to grow Elecampane that you have accessibility to the plant when it comes time to harvest the roots.
Below is a row of Elecampane plants – some of my first workings with it. They put on a lovely show. Come Autumn I was still able to get in to harvest the roots with other plants surrounding them.
The flowers are rather stunning close-up. “Traditionally, the roots are used in European medicine, but the flowers are used for the same bronchial symptoms in China.” (Wood) According to the information I’ve come across so far, the flower medicine is called xuan fu hua and is not the same Inula helenium being discussed here. However, I am curious to work with the flower. If anyone else knows of other resources that discuss the flowers medicinal virtues I’d love to hear about it.
A French healer by the name of Maurice Messegue used herbal foot and hand soaks to deliver the herbs healing qualities to the body. In his book, Health Secrets of Plants and Herbs, he suggests putting a handful of the root into one and three-quarter pints of water and adding, some Elecampane flowers if available at the time.
Notice how one flower tops one stem and the leaves clasp to the stems. Of course, multiple stems shoot out the top providing a welcomed colorful display in the garden.
In early autumn, the flowers go to seed. I’ve never found the plants to be overly extended in re-seeding. I’m always happy to find a few shooting up the following spring providing an on-going source of root medicine.
I like to use a wide tongue pitch fork when I’m harvesting the root. Gently work the soil to loosen the roots. They actually “pop” up pretty easily. I recommend that if you use a shovel to dig the roots that you start about 8 inches away from the crown and point the blade tip straight down into the ground. You risk cutting off roots if you go at it at an angle with a shovel. Harvesting the roots are pretty easy in loose, fertile soil!
Here is a freshly harvest root clump before hosing off the soil. Speaking of which, just turn your hose on the powerful stream like you were cleaning the side of a house and aim it at the root ball. This method makes short order of the process! Now, you can continue a final scrub in the kitchen.
You can see the stalks and attached leaves have already turned brown. I harvest the roots mid to late October and even into early November. A sunny, cool day is simply invigorating for the task. Harvest 2 to 3 year old roots with a preference for 2-year-old roots. Otherwise, the roots get pithy and woody and are not good for making medicine.
Underneath all the soil we find growth “starts” emerging. Once you remove the roots for your medicinal harvest you can re-plant the crown with the emerging buds. I’ve re-planted the whole remaining crowns and found that the next round of roots harvested was less desirable than roots harvested from a single new transplant. The roots to me just didn’t seem to have the same vitality, abundance or size as the new starts from seed.
I plan to try a couple of Maude Grieve’s suggestions this growing season to compare: 1) “off-sets, taken in the autumn from the old root, with a bud or eye to each”, and 2) cutting the root into pieces about 2 inches long, covering with rich, light, sandy soil and keeping in gentle heat during the winter. Sounds fun!
Below are roots with a final scrub and ready to tincture, make honey or dry to use as a favorite winter herbal remedy.
Elecampane roots are one of the greatest source for inulin. You can really see the inulin when you make a tincture and it sets awhile in the bottle. There will appear to be a milky substance in the lower third of the bottle. It is a starch that healthy gut bacteria like to feed on. I’ve even heard inulin referred to as a “probiotic.” According to Matthew Wood, “Inula is nutritious and rebuilding in old, worn-out, exhausted, and broken-down states, with poor nutrition and assimilation.”
Fill a small jar 1/2 full with thinly sliced fresh Elecampane root. Pour honey into the jar, covering the root. Honey will extract moisture from the root, so leave a little empty space at the top of the jar. Turn the jar over periodically for full coverage of the root. Let sit for 4 – 6 weeks and then store in the cupboard. Take directly by the spoonful or add to tea. Also, you can suck and chew on the slices of the root. (source unknown)
SOME OF ELECAMPANE’S HELPFUL WAYS . . . .
- This remedy provides a good illustration of the complex and integrated ways in which herbs work. The mucilage has a relaxing effect, while the essential oils bring about stimulation, so the herb both soothes irritation and promotes expectoration. These actions are combined with an overall antibacterial effect.” (Hoffmann)
- “Elecampane fresh root is known primarily as an antiseptic expectorant for bronchitis, pneumonia and pertussis, especially if they present with a persistent ticklish cough with pain in the chest or ribs.” (Winston)
- “Elecampane is a warming, stimulating, pungent, aromatic bitter that permeates the bronchial tree. It resolves bacterial infection, reducing heavy, thick, green mucus down to yellow and eventually to white or clear mucus as it sanitizes the lungs. It is specific to yellow and green mucus, indicating bacterial infection.” (Wood)
- “The direct tonic influence of inula seems to be exercised also upon the respiratory tract after protracted disease promoting recovery. Where there is persistent irritating cough, with pain beneath the sternum, and abundant expectoration, the condition being acute or sub-acute in character, and accompanied with sonic elevation of the temperature, it will be found serviceable. It is an expectorant of a soothing character.” (Ellingwood)
- “It is suited to old, lingering, infected pulmonary conditions that slip into asthma – also to recent-onset bronchitis in children, with gushing mucus, swallowing of mucus, when the cough reflex will not descend deep enough to bring out the big clump or mucus.” (Wood)
- “Not only is it suited to old infections in the lungs, where the mucus is green or yellow from the presence of bacteria, but it has a facility for “getting the job done” when there is a lingering, stuck infection that will not yield to treatment.” (Wood)
- “this plant also decreases spasms of the chest making it useful in bronchitis, asthma and bronchial pneumonia” (Bove)
- “To the lungs it is warming and strengthening, promoting the discharge of viscid mucous, but leaving the surfaces slightly dry. It is a popular remedy in coughs, but is often used without sufficient discrimination; for while it answers an excellent purpose in sub-acute and chronic cases where the lung structure is relaxed and expectoration viscid or too profuse, (as in humid asthma,) it is not suitable for cases of any class where the lungs are irritated or dry – as it then increases the dryness, and gives a feeling of constriction.” (Cook)
- “Elecampane is an antiseptic expectorant that is useful in treating laryngitis.” Duke also suggests an herbal tea for laryngitis using a “three-herb combo teas suggestion from David Hoffman, that is made with equal parts of elecampane, horehound and mullein. Duke says that “you might try one teaspoon of each per cup of boiling water and steep for ten minutes.” (Duke)
Bove, Mary, N.D., An Encyclopedia of Natural Healing for Children & Infants. New Canaan, Connecticut, Keats Publlishing, Inc. 1996.
Buhner, Steven Harrod. Herbal Antibiotics. North Adams, MA, Storey Publishing. 2012
Cook, William, M.D. The Physiomedical Dispensatory. 1869.
Ellingwood,M.D., Finley. American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy. 1919.
Gibbons, Euell. Stalking the Healthful Herbs. New York,David McKay Company, Inc. 1966.
Grieve, Mrs. M. A Modern Herbal, Volume I. New York, Dover Publications, Inc., 1971 (originally published in 1931).
Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism. Rochester, Vermont, Healing Arts Press. 2003
Winston, David. Herbal Therapeutics. Broadway, N.J., Herbal Therapeutics Research Library, 2003
Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom. Berkeley, California, North Atlantic Books, 1997
Horizon Herbs, LLC catalog, Williams, Oregon