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Common Name: Elecampane | Scientific Name: Inula Helenium

Family Name: Compositae


Inula is the respiratory tonic supreme, good in both chronic and acute respiratory drama. It lays a healing hand on the respiratory tract. Like all members of the daisy family, its stimulates the immune system but has specific tonifying effects on the respiratory tract.


Chapter from “Backyard Medicine Chest” by Dr. Douglas Schar

Chapter from “Backyard Medicine Chest” by Dr. Douglas Schar

Respiratory Strengthener : Elecampane

Let me see just how long I can go without getting a cold…

We all have our own particular weakness and you will find that when it comes time to getting sick, some people get digestive disturbances and others get respiratory illnesses. If you find yourself getting one cold after the next you may want to think about using a respiratory tonic to keep your respiratory system in good working order. In that all of us have to breath the polluted air and work in bacteria filled work places, most of us need a respiratory tonic anyway. Let us remember that people in America are spending in the neighborhood of 20 billion dollars each year on drugs that make it possible to breath!

The concept of tonics are long out of fashion and this is regrettable considering the beatings our bodies are taking.

In their day tonics were botanical drugs – medicinal herbs taken to avoid getting sick. People took plant drugs to avoid getting a summer or winter cold, to avoid succumbing to whatever intestinal flu was passing through the village. Though we act like preventative medicine is something new it is really just something forgotten. People took tonics to generally strengthen their bodies so they could fight off disease. Definitions from medical books when tonics were still in active use tended to look like this one lifted from a medical text dating to 1900, Generally strengthening to the animal constitution, able to bring the system to its fullest potential and strength.”

Our first plant for the respiratory shelf on the medicine cabinet is elecampane, Inula helenium. There are general tonics, like ginseng and sarsaparilla, and then there are specific tonics. General tonics strengthen the body generally. Inula is a specific tonic to the respiratory tract, somehow gently stimulating and strengthening all parts of the breathing apparatus. When taken on a daily basis the respiratory tract works better and is less likely to fall to some respiratory infection. Specific tonics tone a specific part of the body and Elecampane is tops for the breathing bits.

If you think about your yearly schedule you might notice that you tend to get your respiratory infection or infections at the same time or times of the year. This has to do with lots of issues, perhaps a certain plant blooms in May and you react poorly to its pollen and end up getting a cold. Maybe the running around at Christmas time makes you so tired your system cannot fight off a virus you come across at the office. Take a look at your life and establish when it is you generally fall to a respiratory infection. Establish when it is you are most likely to fall sick and start using elecampane during that time period. If you always get a summer cold, make it your business to drink inula tea all through the summer. If you get respiratory infections year round, take inula all year long.

If you cant establish when you generally get a respiratory infection you should at least be able to recognize when you have one coming on. The symptoms vary from person to person, some feel a little achy, others find their sinus burn, still others find their throat a little scratchy. Though modern medicine doesn’t bother itself with preventative medicine you should. If you start using a respiratory tonic at the first signs of some sort of respiratory problem coming on you can avoid letting it turn into a full blown case. You need to get in tune with your body and when you feel a cold coming on, get into action. Its a bother, but it beats getting to the point you cant breath and have to sleep propped up to get air into the old lungs! At the first sign of trouble get out the elecampane.

Elecampane is not a recent discovery, like all of our medicine cabinet plants, this is a plant that has had lots of road tests.

Gerard said this of it in the 16th century, ” It is good for shortness of breath, and an old cough, and for such as connot breath unlesse they hold their necks upright. It is of great vertue both given in a looch, which is a medicne to be licked on, and likewise preserved, as also otherwise given to purge and void out thick , tough, and clammie humors, which stick in the chest and lungs. The root taken with honie or sugar made into an electurary , clenseth the brest , ripeneth tough flegme, and maketh it easie to be spet forth, and prevaileth mightily against the cough and shortness of breath, comforteth the stomacke also, and helpeth digestion.

Gerard mirrors what all the ancient physicians felt about elecampane, when it came to a weak respiratory tract there was no better plant in the field or forest to improve its functioning. There isn’t much doubt how this plant got noticed by the ancient herbalists, truly a sight to see. The leaves are immense, some reaching three feet in length and easily a foot in width. There aren’t many plants living in Britain with such large leaves and this one certainly screams, “notice me”.

Heres a little list of diseases are traditionally treated with elecampane; irritating bronchial coughs, bronchitis, emphysema, asthma, bronchitic asthma, bronchial catarrh, chronic bronchitis, tuberculosis, pneumoconiosis, pertussis, irritating cough, cough of the elderly, chronic pulmonary affections, pulmonary irritations, irritation of the trachea, colds. That just about covers it as far as potential respiratory complaints. The message from the herbalist that came before was this – for the chest – take elecampane.

On the written record Elecampane appears much earlier than in Gerards famous herbal. Indeed it first appears in books penned by the Roman historians and medicine men. Poets, botanists, and herbalists alike working in the Roman empire wrote all about its healing qualities. Horace, Pliny, and Dioscorides all had a few words to share. The latin name for Elecampane, Inula helenium is originally derived from the greek helenion. This indicates that it was as well in active use in the days of the Greeks. Several myths connect the name and the plant to Helena, wife of Menelaus. Allegedly she had this i her hand when she was kidnapped by Paris. Other myths include the plant springing up from her tears and that she was the first to use as a medicine. Whether Helena of Athens knew the plant or not is for the historians to pull hair over. Suffice it to say the ancients were using it in medicine long before the first century ad. References to its use appear in the fifth and seventh century. At that time the plant was called Enula campania which in time became what we call it today, Elecampane.

The Roman writer Pliny had this to say on the topic, “Julia Augustus let no day pass without eating some of the roots of Enula, considered to help digestion and cause mirth.” Here we have one of the first quotes referring to elecampanes ability to insure strong health. It was well known in Britain prior to the Norman invasions and a standard in the Welsh physicians medicine cabinet of the thirteenth century for respiratory and body strengthening powers.

Elecampane has enjoyed international popularity as a respiratory strengthener from the earliest days of European history, but it was from a particular school of medicine, the Eclectic school of medicine that it achieved great acclaim. The Ecletics were just that, physicians that used just about anything to bring healing to their patients. Their schools were in America and unfortunately the last closed in the 1920′s. They believe in gentle medicine and one of their basic tenets was that no medicine should harm in the process of healing. If it made people sick it was bad medicine. This was heresy in the time in which they were working. Bleeding, purging, and the use of poisons were all the rage with the medical establishment. The ecletics had a lot to say when it came to Elecampane and we will now look at what some of the more famous Ecletics had to say on the herb.

Priest and Priest said of it, ” Gently stimulating tonic expectorant for chronic catarrhal conditions: warming , strengthening and cleansing to pulmonary mucous membranes. Indicated for chronic pectoral states with excessive catarrhal expectoration and or tubercular diathesis.” In case you were wondering, catarrh is the old fashioned word for gunk in your respiratory tract, and catarrh in general refers to congestion.

Ellingwood had this to say about elecampane in this direction, “acts directly upon the nutritive functions of the body. In general debility from protracted disease or from overwork, or from age, its influence is plainly apparent. It imparts tone to the digestive and respiratory organs and to the urinary tract.” When a cold sets in you need to fight weaknesses with strength and Elecampane will strengthen up the system under siege. More over, if your body is under attack all the time it is just the strengthener it needs.

And just when you thought there wasn’t anything more to say, nutty old Horton Howard, Md, said this in 1879, “The root of the elecampane has long been celebrated as a valuable remedy for various complaints , particularly all diseases of the lungs, such as coughs, consumptions, and asthma. It likewise promostes urine and insensible perspiration, gently loosens the bowels, and possesses the general properties of a strengthening restorative medicine. It is also said to be good for worms.”

Ok, just one more mention of it, this last piece of brilliance comes from Harvey Felter, Md, in 1901, “It is also a good tonic in atonic dyspepsia with flatus of the bowels. The syrup is aromatic and stimulant, and in chronic bronchitis, with great and profue expectoration is a very food remedy. It lessens night sweats of phthisis and increases the general strength. Some cases of asthma are benefitted by it.”

The ecletics liked elecampane, they liked it a lot. They were working on Americans, namely in the urban centers of industrialized Ohio. People living in those areas were subject to the stress of factory life and the resultant pollution. Much like ourselves, the patients of the ecletics were quite prone to respiratory infections and this plant was seen as the solution to a problematic situation. The key was elecampanes ability to not only tone the breathing apparatus but as well to increase the overall strength of the body. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it.

Getting back to the plant itself, elcampane is indigenous to Europe and parts of Asia though its vigorous growth habit has helped it to become naturalized in parts of North and South America. Yet another medicinal member of the daisy tribe of plants, We grow elecampane for its huge tuberous roots that can be found in the usual spot, below the stems. The roots are harvested in the fall, once the plant has spent the whole year packing the underground food storage receptacles with food to survive the winter. Along with lots of sugar and starch the plant packs the roots with volatile oils, inulin, sterols,mucilage and resins. These chemicals work together to create the impact they do; respiratory tract strengthening.

Though your respiratory tract is on your inside and you may not have seen it with your own eyes, it is not dissimilar to the skin that covers your body. It is a tissue, and like your skin, it can become irritated and aggravated. Elecampane’s chemical contents work in several ways to stop a respiratory infection in its tracks. Firstly, the root contains mucilage which acts as does skin creme on irritated skin, it soothes and protects it from further irritation. You first notice a respiratory infection setting in generally because you have a increase in mucous production. You notice your nose to be a little stuffed up or your chest feels a little congested. Mucous production in the respiratory tract is a response to irritation or infection, it is indeed your bodies way of healing itself. The volatile oils found in elecampane stimulate the little hairs lining the respiratory tract, with this stimulation the little hairs, cilia, can move more mucous out of the tract. While the mucilage is soothing and the volatile oils are moving the mucous out, other ingredients in the plant are working to kill the bacteria that is causing the problem in the first place. These three actions interact and the net result is an improvement in the health of your respiratory tract.

As if this isn’t enough the bitter principles contained in the root stimulate both appetite and digestion. When you are fighting off a cold you need all the strength you can get. Your bodies cells, in active combat with whatever is on the warpath, need all the fuel they can get to put up a good fight. When that moments arrives when you know something has taken up residence in your respiratory tract but it hasn’t really taken hold is the time to start with the elecampane. Increase your sleep, your vitamin c intake, drink lots of liquids, generally take extra good care of yourself. With elecampanes ability to improve digestion you will know your cells are getting all the energy they need.

Since one of the chemicals that makes elecampane effective is the volatile oil it contains you need to make certain that the elecampane you purchase has some in it and that when you prepare your medicine it doesn’t escape. What I am hinting at is this. Volatile oils tend to evaporate into the air and as such buying elecampane at the herb shop where it has been sitting around for half a year is useless. The volatile oil has long since moved on to another universe. For this reason it is better to buy elecampane tincture as the volatile oil will have been trapped in the alcohol and a lid on the tincture will prevent its escaping. Alternatively you can grow your own elecampane and use the fresh root and or freeze it to insure that you get the oils you want for improving your health.

Getting Your Supply:
1. Buy the root at health food stores or buy the tincture. Remember the roots medicinal elements are volatile which means they dont stay in the dried root for long. If the supply at the store isn’t really fresh, less than 6 months old, it is worthless. If you cant be sure the roots are fresh buy the tincture which never goes bad.
2. Grow it yourself. Inula is a wonderful garden plant and if you have any space at all its worth growing. The plant is simply magnificent. It produces the most enormous leaves that are a wonderful sight and addition to any perennial garden. The plant is propagated by cuttings of the roots and any mail order herb nursery will be able to send you a starter plant. The plant produces huge leaves and roots and as such requires a lot of nutrition. Always plant the starter plant in soil filled with manure and fertilize on a regular basis. Inula doesn’t have to be raised in full sun and will tolerate a low light situation, should you have one. Because of the size of the leaf the plant looses a lot of moisture and requires a lot of water, you may want to plant it next to the water faucet ! A vigorous grower, it can be harvested after its first years growth in the fall as the plant dies back down to the ground. As you dig the roots be certain to leave a few pieces of root in the ground. These pieces will turn into new plants in the spring and provide you with the new plants. Due to the volatile nature of the active constituents you want to make tincture out of the fresh root, drying it and risking loosing them isn’t worth it. Turn to the back of the book for directions on making tincture.

Disclaimer: The author makes no guarantees as to the the curative effect of any herb or tonic on this website, and no visitor should attempt to use any of the information herein provided as treatment for any illness, weakness, or disease without first consulting a physician or health care provider. Pregnant women should always consult first with a health care professional before taking any treatment.