by Susan E. Stanton, Staff Herbalist
“What’s that amazing smell?” I ask, releasing my grip on the shovel. Forgetting my present gardening task I pick up the ropey piece of root I’ve accidentally severed, inhale deeply, and with gratitude remember the healing perennial that is planted here. Though I have already cleared its enormous leaves and flower stalk from the fall garden, I can identify elecampane (Inula helenium) by a single whiff of its aromatic yet earthy-smelling root.
Like its scent, the flavor of elecampane is complex. I would describe it as simultaneously bitter and aromatic; pleasant to some, acrid and disgusting to others. This reflects a similar diversity of chemicals and actions in this medicinal plant that is best known as a respiratory remedy.
While elecampane’s mildly camphor-like essential oils have a stimulating expectorant effect, a type of carbohydrate known as mucilage calms irritated tissues. One result is that elecampane allays irritating coughs. It can also be used as a tonic for people with recurring respiratory issues. Additionally, elecampane is antibacterial. In fact, a 2009 study in the British Journal of Biomedical Science found elecampane highly effective when tested in vitro against multiple strains of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant strains known as MRSA.
In addition to being an antibacterial, elecampane is also known to be effective against giardia, a microorganism that causes diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. Elsewhere in the digestive system, the bitter principles of elecampane stimulate liver and gall bladder function. Effects on digestion do not stop there, however.
A starch-like substance called inulin is so plentiful in elecampane it gets its name from the herb’s botanical name, Inula. Large amounts of inulin can also be found in the roots of chicory, burdock, dandelion, echinacea, and Jeruselem artichoke. You may also encounter inulin in certain probiotic products that claim to contain “FOS” or fructooligosaccharides—a medium-chain polysaccharide. That is because inulin is a source of nutrition for the beneficial bacteria that inhabit our intestines. In addition to supporting our beneficial flora, herbs containing inulin may be mildly laxative and lower blood sugar. Just as its rich aroma and complex flavor indicate, there’s a lot going on in this little piece of root I am holding.
Scents can be powerful reminders of the past and this one calls to mind the many times I’ve given a sigh of relief at spotting elecampane in the cabinet, for I almost always call on it when dealing with a cold or cough. Below is one formula I have used for cough, colds, and bronchitis involving a ticklish sensation and/or a lot of thick phlegm.
1-2 Tbsp. dried elecampane root*
1 Tbsp. organic orange peel
1 tsp. licorice root
*This is an easy plant to grow in full or partial sun as long as it has moist soil and plenty of space to spread out. If you don’t have it in your garden you can buy the tincture or the dried elecampane root in the Wellness department. Our dried elecampane is one of several organic bulk herbs we get from Zack Woods Herb Farm in Hyde Park, VT.
Place the above three ingredients in 4 cups of cold water. Cover. Bring to a boil and reduce heat. Simmer for about 10 minutes.
Turn off heat and add:
2 Tbsp. mullein leaves
1 Tbsp. peppermint leaves
1 tsp. thyme leaves
To get the most of its essential oils, which may be partially lost when boiling, add another tablespoon of elecampane root or 30-60 drops of elecampane tincture and cover immediately.
Steep 15-20 minutes. Strain and drink 2-3 cups hot tea per day.
Take another deep breath!