Elecampane is a tall, showy perennial member of the sunflower family, native to Central and Southern Europe. It's been used historically as a flavoring for wines, aromatic bitters, liqueurs, candies and sweets, and as an ingredient in syrups, lozenges and herbal tea blends.
Inula helenium L.
Botanical Family: Asteraceae
Common name: Elecampane
Synonyms:scabwort, horseheal, yellow starwort, alant, rizoma de enula campana (Spanish)
The Plant: The elecampane plant with its large leaves, stout stalks and sunny yellow flowers, is striking in the garden, field or roadsides where it grows wild. It can grow to as much as six feet tall. A native of Central Asia or Eastern Europe, it is naturalized across all of Europe and the eastern United States. Elecampane is quite a robust herb, cold tolerant and growing well in sun or partial-shade. It prefers a somewhat moist, well-drained soil, but the plant is drought tolerant and competes well with weeds and other plants. The one- to two-foot long leaves have a rough surface with soft undersides that are covered with downy hairs.
Elecampane was well known in Roman times. The roots were used as a flavoring and a vegetable and often were associated with candies and other sweets. It was also a flavoring in absinthe and aromatic wines. The names scabwort and horseheal came from its use in parts of Europe as a treatment for sheep scab and skin disease in horses. The botanical name hearkens back to Helen of Troy.
Elecampane’s large, fleshy rhizomes and roots are the parts of the plant used as a dietary supplement. The root is dug in the fall, preferably in the fall of the second year of growth. Roots from older plants can grow quite large and become too woody. Because of their size, elecampane roots are best dried after being chopped into pieces.
Constituents of Note: Many plants contain the polysaccharide, inulin but elecampane has up to 44% of this slightly sweet, bland-tasting constituent. The essential oil, present at 1 to 4% contains sesquiterpene lactones, mainly alantolactone or helenalin.
Quality: Elecampane root has a slightly sweet, spicy, musky, bitter and aromatic flavor that lingers in the mouth. Roots should be 99% free of above ground parts (leaf, stem). Like all roots, excess dirt may be a problem and an AIA test should be performed to make sure this is not the case. The dried root The inside flesh of the root is yellow-brown to gray-brown.
Regulatory Status: GRAS (Title 21 182.10 and 182.20) as a spice, natural flavoring, and seasoning, Dietary Supplement
Directions: To use as a tea, make a decoction by simmering one teaspoon of elecampane root in one cup of water, in a covered pan, for ten minutes.
Suggested Uses: Elecampane is classified as an aromatic bitter tonic. Its use in herbal bitters is not as prevalent today as it once was, but bitters bars are once again growing in popularity. Elecampane is warming, strengthening and cleansing and is often an ingredient in syrups, lozenges and other formulations. It is combined with many herbs in formulas, such as horehound, hyssop, peppermint and coltsfoot.
Caution/Safety: The Botanical Safety Handbook* classifies X as:
Class:2b Herbs not to be used during pregnancy.
Class: 2c Herbs not to be used during nursing.
Per the German Commission E Monograph** for elecampane, “the sesquiterpene lactones present in elecampane, principally alantolactone, irritate the mucous membranes. These lactones are sensitizing and cause allergic contact dermatitis . . . Large amounts of the herb lead to vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, and symptoms of paralysis.”
*Michael McGuffin, ed., American Herbal Products Association's Botanical Safety Handbook, (New York: CRC Press, 1997)
**Mark Blumenthal, ed., The Complete German Commission E Monographs, (Austin TX: Integrative Medicine Communications, 1998
Origins: Our elecampane is cultivated in eastern Europe or China.