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New ways with elecampane
Posted on: 07 July 2023

Making your own syrups or tinctures from home-grown elecampane (Inula helenium) to treat respiratory probems  has never been easy. Traditionally we use the plant’s root and digging up and chopping its tough roots is difficult and often something you really don’t want to do to your carefully nurtured and rather lovely plant.

Early herbals are sometimes very specific as to how the root must be prepared. The Leechbook of Bald1, or example, includes a long description of how elecampane root must be harvested for treating “elf-sickness”. It involves plunging a knife into the ground near the plant (on a Wednesday evening), singing various prayers, digging up the plant the next day and leaving it on an altar before making it into a tea (possibly with betony or vervain – the plant name is unclear), and saying more prayers before giving it to the sufferer who will “soon be better”.

In Chinese medicine elecampane flowers (xuan fu hua) are, like the root, similarly used for bronchitis as well as various other ailments, but this plant is usually described in the literature as Inula japonica – suggesting a different species.

However, work2 by Christine Leon (from Kew) and Lin Yu-Lin ( Institute of Medicinal Plant Development, Beijing) in identifying and classifying the most popular Chinese herbal remedies, has confirmed that xuan fu hua comprises the flowers of our own Inula helenium.

Last year I made a tincture (1:10 in 25% alcohol) from the fresh elecampane flowers in my garden and it clearly has action on the respiratory system, although how it compares with the root or whether it has the same tonic effect is unclear.

So if you do grow elecampane in your garden try experimenting with the flowers – which also taste significantly nicer in a tincture than does elecampane root. This year I might try making a syrup from them  as well…

1. “Leechbook of Bald No. 62” in S Pollington Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore and Healing, Anglo-Saxon Books.

2. C Leon & Lin Y-L Chinese Medicinal Plants, herbal drugs and substitutes: an identification guide, Kew Publishing.

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