Elecampane is a herb that may be unfamiliar to some, but it is one that I would not want to do without – it is extremely useful in the treatment of most types of coughs and colds and even helps with asthma. It is found wild throughout Europe and extends as far as southern Siberia and northwest India.
It is a herb that has been in use for a long time – Dioscorides and Pliny praised it, and it even features in Roman poetry. The common name ‘Elecampane’ probably derives in part from the Latin ‘campus’ for field. Its Latin name, ‘Inula helenium’, is allegedly connected with Helen of Troy who supposedly held a bunch of Elecampane when she was taken by Paris. The word ‘Inula’ is thought to be a corruption of Helenula – meaning ‘little Helen’. Another legend states that the plant Elecampane sprang from Helen’s tears: another that Helen first used it against venomous bites; a fourth, that it took the name from the island Helena, where the best plants grew. So, take your pick!
The roots were candied and eaten as a sweetmeat, and in the middle ages used as an ingredient to flavour sauces for meat and fish. The Romans also ate the boiled leaves as a vegetable, but I wouldn’t fancy trying that – they’re quite tough and hairy! Elecampane was also very popular as a veterinary medicine in Victorian times – in particular for curing skin diseases in horses and sheep.
Elecampane is a very dramatic-looking plant that makes a great addition to any herb, vegetable or flower garden. It is large, up to five-feet high, with wide, wrinkly and downy leaves and tall spikes of bright yellow flowers. These flowers are popular with butterflies who love their nectar, while the large leaves give them shelter during bad weather. It is also said that growing the plant in your garden will attract fairies!
However, it’s the roots that medical herbalists are after. They are harvested in the winter time, once the leaves have died down, and the amazing aromatic smell that comes into the house when you bring them in will not go unnoticed! Once they are thoroughly washed the roots can be sliced and dried or made into a tincture.
Elecampane root has pronounced expectorant actions as well as being strongly anti-bacterial and is traditionally used as a remedy for colds, coughs and bronchitis. It contains a volatile oil and several lactones as well as bitter compounds and a very high percentage of the carbohydrate inulin.
Recent studies have shown that Elecampane root extracts are active against a long list of pathogens, including Staph aureus, E coli, Candida albicans and many other organisms. Researchers at Cork Institute of Technology found that Elecampane extracts were active even against MRSA.
The bitter compound combined with the high content of inulin points towards another use of the root: It helps to stimulate digestion and maintain a healthy environment in the bowel. Inulin, as mentioned already in my article on dandelions in the September 15 issue) has a prebiotic effect, meaning that it is not digested or absorbed like other carbohydrates, but instead promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria in the large intestine, in particular bifidobacteria. These bacteria metabolise inulin into so-called short-chain fatty acids, compounds which greatly improve bowel function.
Particularly exciting is preliminary research that shows Elecampane as exhibiting a highly selective toxicity towards tumour cells – this means it doesn’t harm normal cells but causes the death of cancer cells, making Elecampane an excellent candidate for further anti-cancerous investigations.
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