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An aromatic and antimicrobial expectorant, elecampane is an excellent remedy for the lungs


Inula helenium L Asteraceae

The roots of this majestic plant demonstrate impressive activity in conditions affecting the lungs.

Sustainability Status

Sustainability status

Not currently on risk lists but complete data may be missing on the status of the species. Commonly cultivated though may be sourced from the wild. Only source cultivated supplies or from certified sustainable wild collection. Read more about our sustainability guide.

Key benefits
  • Chronic respiratory diseases
  • Tonic effects for convalescence and fatigue
  • Poor digestion
  • How does it feel?

    The root has an amazing smell, very aromatic and slightly camphor-like. It bears some resemblance to the scent of sweet flag root, for those who are familiar with that smell.

    On tasting, it is initially sweet, moving rapidly to a pungent, warming, aromatic bitterness. This aromatic bitterness lingers on the tongue for some time after taking.

  • What can I use it for?

    All manner of lung infections where a good level of expectoration can be coupled with an antimicrobial effect. It is a spasmolytic on the bronchioles and has a long tradition of use in asthma, bronchitis, whooping cough, tuberculosis and pleurisy. Added to this it is useful for a depleted system where a tonic activity is required and its action on the digestive system helps here. It is also used in remedies for intestinal worms.

  • Into the heart of elecampane

    Elecampane can be thought of as a tonic for the lungs. It is a bronchospasmolytic, expectorant and antimicrobial, making it an excellent remedy of choice for lung disease including where infection is present.

    It has a long history of use for ‘old coughs’, especially in tuberculosis and for advanced lung conditions to help remove phlegm, such as bronchiectasis, pneumoconiosis, (disease of the lungs caused by inhalation of irritant particles such as asbestos or coal mine dust), whooping cough and bronchitis.

    Elecampane can be described as a warming aromatic bitterIt promotes the secretions and movement of the gut and is especially useful in cases where there is a weak digestion with ‘low digestive fire’ – low Agni in Ayurvedic terms; where there may be poor appetite, bloating, wind or foggy-headedness.

  • Traditional uses

    Elecampane is used in Western, Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese medicine.

    The herbalist John Gerard remarked that “The flowers of this herb are in all their bravery during June and July; the roots should be gathered in the autumn. The plant is good for an old cough, and for such as cannot breathe freely unless they hold their necks upright; also it is of great value when given in a loch, which is a medicine to be licked on. It voids out thick clammy humors, which stick in the chest and lungs.”

    A decoction or a tincture of the root can been used as a lung tonic in all manner of cases where there is a need to support the respiratory system. It may also support the digestive system, especially in cases where there are intestinal worms.

  • Traditional actions

  • Traditional energetic actions

    Herbal energetics are the descriptions Herbalists have given to plants, mushrooms, lichens, foods, and some minerals based on the direct experience of how they taste, feel, and work in the body. All traditional health systems use these principles to explain how the environment we live in and absorb, impacts our health. Find out more about traditional energetic actions in our article “An introduction to herbal energetics“.

  • What practitioners say

    Respiratory system:  Excellent for phlegmy coughs that produce thick mucus.

    Elecampane combines well with white horehound for bronchial catarrh.

    It is also used in emphysema and asthma due to its ability to help the body in expelling phlegm and relaxing bronchial spasm.

    Its antimicrobial effects make it a good choice in bronchitis and it has a long history of use in the management of tuberculosis.

    Digestive system:  Very useful where there is sluggish digestion, intolerance of fatty foods, wind and bloating, it stimulates peristalsis and the secretions of the digestive tract, perking up the appetite.

    Another use when combined with anthelmintic herbs such as wormwood and pumpkin seeds is for intestinal worms.

    Fatigue: Elecampane can be used in cases chronic fatigue and convalescence for its warming, tonic effects.

  • Research

    Elecampane has a long history of use in the treatment of respiratory and digestive diseases in both humans and animals, however there are some promising findings (in vitro only so far) showing the sesquiterpene lactones within the roots to possess cytotoxic and antiproliferative effects on cancer cell lines (2,3).

    There is also evidence for anti-inflammatory effects. One study showed a suppression of neutrophil-binding (a type of immune cell) binding via downregulation of Beta 2 integrin (a type of protein that allows certain immune cells to come out of circulation and into inflamed tissues) and suppression of the release of IL-8, TNF-alpha and IL-1Beta, (pro-inflammatory substances). These effects were comparable with the use of Budesonide (a steroidal inhaler used in asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) (4).

    Antibacterial (5), antifungal (6), and anthelmintic (7) activities have also been evidenced in vitro.

  • Did you know?

    • There are a few theories as to how elecampane came by its Latin name Inula helenium, some of which concern Helen of Troy.  One such is that the plant is said to have grown where her tears fell, another that Helen was said to have her arms full of elecampane when Paris stole her away and yet another suggests that she first used it to cure snake bites.
    • The common name elfwort is connected to the belief in Celtic times that the herb possessed magical properties, elves were variously believed to favour the plant and also to reside within it.
    • The common name of scabwort came about from use of the root, boiled well in vinegar, beaten and made into a salve with suet or oil of trotters for scabs or itch, including for use on sheep. The decoctions from the vinegar-boiled root were also applied ‘putrid sores or cankers’.
    • Elecampane root is one of the ingredients used in the preparation of absinthe
    • The inulin in the root is a prebiotic and so is supportive of a healthy gut flora

Additional information

  • Botanical description

    Elecampane is a large perennial herb, native to Southern Europe and Western Asia and distributed across warm and temperate parts of Eurasia. Possessing large tuberous, branched rootstock and growing up to a height of 3 metres, this striking plant certainly adds character to a border.  Large, bright green toothed-leaves, some up to 70 cm long, grow from furrowed and downy stems. Sunshine-yellow daisy-like flower heads appear from mid-summer with slender ray petals and a centre of apricot-coloured disc florets.   

    The aromatic roots are harvested in the autumn from two to three-year-old plants. It might be possible to divide a big plant, harvesting just a portion of the root.

  • Common names

    • Elecampane
    • Elfwort
    • Scabwort
    • Wild sunflower
  • Safety

    To be avoided in known sensitivity to members of the Asteraceae (Daisy) family.

    No safety concerns if taken within the recommended dosage range. High doses may cause nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea, likely due to the sesquiterpene lactones.

  • Dosage

    Decoction of the dried and chopped root: 4.5-12g per day of the dried root

    4-9 ml per day of a 1:3 strength tincture

Elecampane (Inula helenium)
  • Recipe

    Elecampane cough syrup

    Take 30g of the dried root and add to 500ml water in a pan, bring to the boil and let simmer until it has reduced by about half the volume. Strain well through muslin so you can really squeeze the root pieces for the precious extract. Allow to get to a lukewarm temperature and then combine with half as much honey and stir well.
    Bottle and label with the name and date and store in the fridge. Keeps for 4-6 months.
    Take a teaspoon when needed, up to 5 times daily. For Children halve the dose.

    Elecampane lozenges

    Put 100g finely powdered root in a bowl. Add a tablespoon of honey – keep adding more until you form a doughy-mass. Now roll into small pellets between the palms of your hand and dry in a dehydrator overnight. Store in an airtight container and consume within a month.

  • References

    1. Buza, V et al. (2020) Inula helenium. A literature review on ethnomedical uses. Bioactive compounds and pharmacological activities. University or Agricultural sciences and veterinary medicine, 63 (1)
    2. Kubra, K etc al. (2018): Antioxidant and anticancer activities of extract of Inula helenium (L.) in human U-87 MG glioblastoma cell line, Journal of Cancer Research and Therapeutics, 14 (3), 658-661
    3. Zhang, B et al. (2018): Ethyl acetate extract from Inula helenium L. inhibits the proliferation of pancreatic cancer cells by regulating the STAT3/AKT pathway, Molecular Medicine Reports, 17, 5440-5448.
    4. Gierlikowska, B et al. (2020): Inula helenium and Grindelia squarrosa as a source of compounds with anti-inflammatory activity in human neutrophils and cultured human respiratory epithelium, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 249, 112311.
    5. Stanojević, D et al. (2010) – In vitro synergistic antibacterial activity of Helichrysum arenarium, Inula helenium, Cichorium intybus and some preservatives, Italian Journal of Food Science, 22, 210–216.
    6. Stojanović-Radić, Z et al. (2020) – Anticandidal activity of Inula helenium root essential oil: Synergistic potential, anti-virulence efficacy and mechanism of action, Industrial crops and products, 149, 112373
    7. Urban, J., Kokoska, L., Langrova, I., Matejkova, J., (2008) – In vitro anthelmintic effects of medicinal plants used in Czech Republic, Pharmaceutical Biology, 46, 808–813.
    8. Greer, J M. (2017). The Encyclopedia of Natural Magic (First ed.). Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn. p. 101
    9. Grieve, M (1931) A Modern Herbal. Tiger press. Ed 1992. ISBN 1-83-5501-249-9
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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