Sunday, 14 June 2020

Herbs Through the Ages: Elecampane

Elecampane Flowers
Elecampane Flowers © Debs Cook

I'm patiently waiting for this perennial beauty to flower in my garden and whilst I do I thought I'd write a little about its use through the ages. Elecampane (Inula helenium) is said to get the Helenium part of its name to honour Helen of Troy, the Ancient Greeks believed that it was from her tears that the first elecampane plants sprang. It is an herbaceous, perennial plant, native to central and northern Europe and north-west Asia, now found growing in North America which grows to a height of 1.5 metres. It has an erect, stout, furrowed stem, which branches near the top. The leaves are alternate, ovate, pointed, and serrated along the edges, mid-green in colour on the upper surface, the under surface is covered in a velvety coating of fine white hairs, upper leaves are veined and 15-45cm in length. The flowers are borne as terminal heads of deep yellow rayed flowers with many fine petals which look similar to sunflowers and are 5-9cm in diameter. Other names that elecampane has been referred to include: - Inula, Wild Sunflower, Horseheal, Yellow Starwort, Scabwort, Velvet Dock, Elfdock, Elfwort, Enule Campagne, Enula Campana, Echter Alant, Grande Aunée, Helenio, Inule Aunée and Inule Hélénie.

The Greeks used elecampane root to aid digestion and considered it to have a particular affinity with the stomach, but it was also used for a variety of other uses. Dioscorides in the 1st century A.D. administered a drink to patients made from a decoction of elecampane sweetened with a little honey to help to promote urine and menstrual flow. The root he once again mixed with honey and turned it into a syrup which was used to help ease “coughs, asthma, hernias, convulsions, gaseousness, and the bites of venomous creatures, being generally warming.” Dioscorides also liked to use the leaves boiled in wine, which he then strained and applied as a fomentation to help ease sciatica, he also described how it was preserved, it was first dried “and afterwards boiled, then steeped in cold water and put into a decoction and kept in jars for use. Pounded and taken in a drink it is good for bloody excretions.

The 11th century Abbess Hildegard Von Bingen described elecampane as being warm and dry in nature, she employed the root to help ease lung complaints and to relieve migraines, she infused the root in wine and gave the infusion to her patients to drink. If wine wasn’t available she counselled that an infusion could instead be made in a hydromel (honey and water).

Elecampane has long been valued as a healing herb for external wounds, the Spanish conquistadors employed used elecampane to make surgical dressings and poultices for wounds; the powerful antiseptic and antibacterial properties of the root helped to heal putrefying wounds. 17th century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper recommended elecampane to guard against putrefaction and as a means of helping to “remove cramps or convulsions, the pains of gout, [and] the sciatica”.

Whilst 18th century herbalist William Salmon in his book the ‘Botanologia’ published in 1710, gave a list of 22 herbal preparations that could be made from elecampane root. Salmon wrote “From the Root of this Herb you, may make the following Preparations, viz. I. A juice. 2. An Essence. 3. A Syrup. 4. A Decoction or Infusion. 5. A Powder. 6. An Electuary 7. An Ointment. 8. A Balsam 9. A Cataplasm. 10. A Distilled Water. 11. A Spirituous Tincture. 12. An Acid Tincture. 13. An Oily Tincture. 14. A Saline Tincture. 15. A Spirit. 16. A Distilled Oil. 17. Potentiates or Powers [A potentiate was a substance used to augment the activity of a remedy, synergistically.] 18. An Elixir. 19. A Fixed Salt. 20. Sanguis or Blood. 21. The Preserve or Conserve. 22. Enulamel or Honey of Elecampane.” Salmon described the root as being “hot and dry in the third degree” and considered it to be a specific for “old Coughs, Catarrhs, and tartarous matter obstructing the Lungs.

It wasn’t just humans that elecampane's wound healing properties were used, the root got one of its common names of Horse-heal due to the fact that farriers often used elecampane to heal scabs and sores on the heels of horses to help prevent them going lame, the bruised roots were mixed with hog fat to make a salve for applying to horses suffering from the scab. Decoctions and infusions of the root were added to washes for inflamed skin, and used to make poultices and fomentations, the tincture and infusions was also be added to balms and salves to help wounds to heal.

In the 16th century John Gerard recommended using Elecampane for treating shortness of breath, writing that “[elecampane] is good for the shortnesse of breath and an old cough, and for such as cannot breathe unlesse they hold their neckes upright”, there was also a belief that sucking on a piece of elecampane root could protect a person from poisonous vapours and foul air. The Elizabethan’s were rather fond of candied elecampane root, it was a popular sweetmeat of the time, and the roots were also used to make teas and tisanes or lozenges for sore throats, coughs and were used to treat whooping cough. Sir John Hill in the 18th century recommended that the best way of taking elecampane root for coughs was to take a little of the candied root and to hold it “almost continually in the mouth, swallowed gently, so that it will take effect much better than by a larger dose swallowed at once”.

Elecampane Leaf & Bud
Elecampane Leaf & Bud
The medical botanists of the 19th century used a tincture of elecampane as part of a wash to clean wounds and help them to heal. Throughout historical herbal texts you can find references to elecampane being used to help ease asthma and chest complaints, candied elecampane root was once sold in England as a means of treating asthmatic conditions; where it remained a popular sweetmeat in London for easing asthma and chest complaints right up to the mid-19th century. An old recipe involved pounding the root together with sugar, and boiling it up with water to which a little cochineal colouring was added, the resultant mix was then stamped out into rounds and consumed when a person suffered from coughs or asthma.

Elecampane root is one of the ingredients alongside wormwood that goes to make the famous French liqueur Absinthe. The root wasn’t just drunk for pleasure, a decoction was used as a gargle in the way we use mouthwash today, which was believed to strengthen the gums so that teeth that were loose would once again become ‘fast’ in the mouth and prevent the teeth from falling out. The root was chewed to help fix the teeth back into the gums, after Pliny the Elder back in the 1st century A.D. wrote that “being chewed fasting, doth fasten the teeth”, the root was also believed to help stop tooth decay and to prevent teeth from going bad and putrefying.

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