This lesson is from Teacup Alchemy’s Elecampane Masterclass, on sale now for $19. Teacup Alchemy courses are an affordable way to learn the art of herbalism online, at your own pace. If you enjoy the lesson, don’t miss this free recipe from the course.
An introduction to elecampane
Welcome to lecture one of the Elecampane Master Class! In this lecture, you will learn about the garden habits, close relatives, and origins of elecampane. This will give you more context about this herb before we explore how to use it. Knowing an herb’s common names and scientific names can also be helpful, so let’s start there.
As you might already know, an herb can have many common names, but has only one scientific name. Common names are a bit like nicknames and usually refer to ways an herb can be used or its appearance. They can be shared by more than one plant and are often used in folk herbalism.
The scientific name, however, is a two-part name based on pseudo-Latin. It helps botanists and other scientists indicate the specific plant they are talking about. The scientific name for elecampane is Inula helenium. Other common names for elecampane include:
- velvet dock
Elecampane’s common names refer to some of its past uses and lore surrounding the plant. For instance, horseheal references its use in traditional veterinary herbalism, and scabwort refers to its use as a wash to promote the healing of wounds. But none of those names tell us much about what elecampane looks like.
Elecampane’s physical appearance
In the same family as sunflowers, the Asteraceae family, elecampane shares bright yellow flowers, generous leaves, and height with its sunflower cousins. This herb really has presence! Large leaves and strong, tall stems make elecampane hard to miss, especially when the plant displays its cheery yellow blooms. The flower stalk for elecampane can be quite tall, but usually ranges between three and six feet.
Starting at the base of the stem, elecampane has ovate-eliptic basal leaves next to the ground. Further up along the stem, the leaves become ovate-lanceolate. This means that leaves below tend to be more egg-shaped and leaves further up tend to be longer and more “lance-like”. Both types of leaves have what botanists call “toothed” edges, meaning they are a little jagged.
Overall, the leaves of this herb are very coarse and a bit hairy, especially on the underside. The top side of the leaves tend to be green or grey-green, and underneath they have a silver color.
When an elecampane plant produces flowers, it produces a bright yellow head made up of many very small flowers. These heads, or inflorescences, are 2-3 inches across. The flowers are very reminiscent of sunflowers. There’s a bright yellow center made of small, tubular flowers called disc flowers which are surrounded by the familiar sunflower petals- known as ray flowers.
Elecampane shares many similarities in appearance with other members of its family tree.
Elecampane’s family tree
Around the world and throughout herbal history, Inula species (such as elecampane) have been esteemed for their tonic nature and affinity for the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract.
Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda have included Inula spp in their materia medica for thousands of years, and herbs in this genus are an important part of ethnobotanical traditions in North America.
I. helenium is just one species within a large genus and even larger family. Within its genus, Inula includes over 100 species found worldwide (Cech, 2000). Not all of the species are used in herbalism, however. Depending on the location and herbal tradition being practiced, these are a few other species with a record of use (Cech, 2000):
- britannica var. chinensis
Like many of its family members, elecampane is native Europe and northern Asia. Interestingly, it can also be found growing wild in parts of the United States. This is because elecampane was brought with English immigrants in the 1600s and quickly naturalized as it spread from gardens (Mack, 2003). It was even adopted into the herbal practices of the Cherokee, Delaware, Iroqouis, Malecite, Micmac, and Mohegan (NAEB, 2003).
Elecampane’s easy-going growing habits are still clearly visible in modern gardens, where it is grown for its roots, leaves, and flowers.
Like many perennial herbs, it may take a year or two for elecampane to feel at home in your garden. Once established, you can expect this herb to come back year after year. It’s very easy to grow in most garden settings. It doesn’t require any special treatment, although it does appreciate water during hot, dry summers.
Elecampane will thrive in garden zones 3-7. This means it can tolerate an extremely wide range of temperatures, and doesn’t mind cold winters. Soil can range from sandy to clay, as long as it is well drained. Elecampane roots will rot if soils are too wet. This herb prefers a sunny location but may tolerate partial shade.
The only concern about growing elecampane plants is that they do need some room. Plan on giving your plants two to three feet of space around each one to accommodate the leaves and roots in a garden setting.
Although some herbs can be challenging to start from seed, elecampane is very easy. It’s a light-dependent germinator, so be careful not to bury it deeply. Sprinkle the seeds where you want it to grow, then pat them down lightly with a bit of soil strewn over the top to hold them in place. Germination usually happens within two weeks.
Elecampane transplants well, so you can also start seeds in soil blocks or pots. I usually start my elecampane in soil blocks in the spring or summer. I tamp the seeds down on top of the blocks and keep them moist until germination. Once the seedlings are well established, I transplant the blocks out into the garden.
After a year or two in the garden, your elecampane will be ready to harvest.
Harvesting elecampane flowers and leaves
Besides being adapted to a wide variety of garden environments, elecampane is also versatile in terms of yield. The leaves, flowers, and roots of this plant can all be harvested for herbal use. All parts of elecampane can be dried on screens and saved to use later. If you are drying roots, cut them into thin slices so they dry quickly. Consider using a dehydrator on a low setting to prevent mold when drying roots.
Harvesting flowers and leaves is simple with a clean pair of gardening snips. It’s best to harvest elecampane leaves before or during bloom. After the plants have set seed, it’s typical for the foliage to die back quickly as the plant concentrates energy in the roots to get through winter. For home use, leaves can be picked throughout the early part of the growing season. The plant needs them to feed its roots, so it’s best to take only a few at a time and give the plant time to grow more.
When the flowers begin blooming, harvest them on the day they open fully whenever possible. Like the leaves, the flowers have their own part to play in the plant life cycle. Waiting too long to harvest flowers may mean that the seeds have already begun to form.
Harvesting elecampane roots
Plant life cycles dictates that fall, just after the first frost, is usually the best time to harvest roots. In the case of elecampane, this is also when the root will have the highest amount of inulin. Inulin is one of the plant starches that makes elecampane root so beneficial for digestive health and the immune system.
Determine the size of the root by using a trowel to dig lightly around the base of the plant. Elecampane roots can be very large and grow as a knot with roots shooting off in all directions. The offshoots are rhizomes and will grow more roots and leaves to create new elecampane plants. Once you know approximately where the root is, use a spade to dig it up.
Alternatively, you can dig the rhizomes and leave the main roots intact. This is a good option if the plant is older and the root may not be great quality. Once you’ve harvested your roots or rhizomes, wash the dirt off with running water before using them or preparing them for drying.
Although leaves and flowers can be harvested from plants of any age, there may be a window of time when elecampane roots are at their best.
Best time to harvest the roots
As is true with most perennial herbal roots, harvesting in the fall of the second year is a good idea. By the second year, the root is a good size but hasn’t become woody. There’s also less time for insect pests or plant diseases to take hold while plants are young and vigorous, and less chances for the roots to rot if soils are too wet.
In my personal garden, I use this two-year rule. However, feel free to take it on an individual basis by considering your local growing conditions, soil, and pests. Herbalist Henriette Kress uses four and five-year-old roots without a problem (Kress, 2013).
In my experiences, things like weather (such as a dry summer) and overall conditions of the growing site can influence the health of plants, so it’s important to evaluate the plants and the setting before harvesting.
If you are planning to add elecampane to your garden, you may be curious about how much you can expect to harvest.
Elecampane estimated yields
It can be difficult to estimate how much a fresh elecampane root will weigh because (as with any crop) there are many variables. There’s also not much guidance available on expected yields for elecampane leaves and flowers, fresh or dried.
However, the roots are common in commerce so more information is available on harvest yields for the roots. According to herb farmers Jeff and Melanie Carpenter, the moisture ratio for elecampane is 4:1 fresh/dried (Carpenter, 2015). This means that for every 4 oz of fresh root you can expect approximately 1 oz of dried.
To put this in perspective, making an extract with an ounce of dried elecampane root can yield 3 to 4 oz of extract depending on the desired strength (more information on making herbal extracts with elecampane can be found in Lecture 4). Keeping your own harvest notes from year to year will help you develop a better picture of what to expect in your garden.
Even if you don’t decide to grow elecampane at home, it’s good to know this information about elecampane because it helps connect us with the process that goes into the dried root and products we buy at the store. Another way to connect with this plant is through the history of our herbal traditions.
Historic perspectives on elecampane
Elecampane is a particularly fascinating herb when it comes to history, because there is a record of use from ancient times right up until the modern day. The next lecture will examine elecampane through a historic lens.
I hope you will join me in the Elecampane Masterclass for $19 to learn more about using this versatile herb for respiratory health.
Carpenter, J., Carpenter, M. (2015) The Organic Medicinal Herb Farmer. Chelsea Green Publishing.
Cech, R. (2003) Making Plant Medicine. Horizon Herbs.
Kress, H. (2013). Herb of the week: elecampane. Henriette’s Herbal Homepage. https://www.henriettes-herb.com/blog/hotw-elecampane.html
Mack, R. (2003). Plant Naturalizations and Invasions in the Eastern United States: 1634-1860. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 90(1), 77-90. doi:10.2307/3298528 https://archive.org/details/mobot31753003566160/page/80/mode/2up/search/inula+
NAEB (2003) NAEB text search. Native American Ethnobotany Database. http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/?string=inula+helenium
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This lecture is part of Teacup Alchemy’s Elecampane Master Class. Please do not distribute copies of this lecture without attribution to the author.
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