A Plant Profile of Elecampane

Elecampane (Inula helenium) belongs to one of the largest and most well known plant families, the Asteraceae plant family; it is related to such plants as sunflower, calendula and chrysanthemum and, as such, carries the familys physical characteristics. However, elecampane is not as well known as some of its more familiar family members, despite its use medicinally since ancient times.

Botanical Profile of Elecampane

Elecampane is a perennial herb that can grow up to five feet in height; it has large, yellow flowers that share the “daisy” characteristics of the Asteraceae plant family. At first glance, you might think it resembles a sunflower although on closer inspection you will see that there are distinct differences between the two species.

Elecampane has oval, green leaves and rhizome roots; it flowers throughout the midsummer months. Julia Lawless, in The Aromatherapy Garden, describes the scent of elecampane as “bitter, pungent, slightly camphoraceous, stimulating, purifying.” Elecampane is native to Asia and Europe, although you can now find the plant growing in North America too.

Historical Use of Elecampane

Many historical writers mention the use of elecampane. Maud Grieve, in A Modern Herbal, writes that both Greek physician and botanist Discorides (40 – 90 AD) and Roman naturalist Pliny (23 - 79 AD) described the medicinal uses of elecampane. Elecampane was also popular in Medieval herb gardens and cottage gardens. In addition, elecampane was used in Eastern herbal medicine. Elecampane was used to treat bronchitis and digestive disorders; it was also used as a spice and a sweetmeat.

Medicinal Uses of Elecampane

The roots of elecampane are distilled to produce an essential oil; however, it is not recommended for aromatherapy use because of its ability to cause severe skin allergies. Elecampane essential oil is predominately used in perfumery. It is used as a herb in herbal medicine for respiratory problems and skin conditions, depending on how the plant is used.

Cautions for Using Elecampane

Lawless recommends avoiding the use of elecampane during pregnancy. In addition, the essential oil is a severe skin sensitizer. Consult a qualified professional if you are using elecampane in a herbal or aromatherapy application. You can also use elecampane in culinary dishes as a vegetable which does not carry the same cautions as for medicinal use. There are various species of elecampane which vary in scent and chemical composition; make sure that you have identified the right species for medicinal use before applying it.