Elecampane (Inula helenium) is a perennial herb in the aster family with a long history of medicinal uses. In appearance, it is reminiscent of a sunflower plant, with tall stalks, pale green foliage, and bright yellow flowers with large seed heads in the center. The flowers of elecampane are much smaller than sunflowers, but it has enormous leaves that can grow to 2 feet in length.
Elecampane is easy to grow but is not particularly showy or attractive. It is grown primarily for its use in herbal medicine. All parts of the plant have medicinal applications, but the octopus-like roots provide the main source of useful material.
The many uses of elecampane are suggested in its various common names, including elf dock, scabwort, wild sunflower, horseheal, horse elder. As far back as Roman times, this herb was commonly used to treat indigestion. Helen of Troy is said to have had a handful of the plant when Paris stole her away. And several of the nicknames for elecampane came from early beliefs that it cured many ailments on animals.
|Botanical Name||Inula helenium|
|Plant Type||Perennial herb|
|Mature Size||3 to 6 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun to part shade|
|Soil Type||Variety of types; well-drained|
|Soil pH||6.5 to 7.5|
|Bloom Time||Summer to fall|
|Hardiness Zones||3 to 7|
Elecampane needs some room to grow and should be planted 12 to 30 inches apart. It is easy to grow from seed and can be divided once mature. The plant typically will not flower its first year. From the second season on, it should have robust blooms from early summer through early fall.
Elecampane spreads via rhizomes, underground "runners" that bear both roots and upward-climbing shoots. Many rhizomous plants are aggressive spreaders; elecampane will spread on its own but not aggressively so. In ideal conditions, it can self-seed and grow new plants from fallen seeds. If desired, you can divide large plants every few years.
Elecampane grows in a wide range of climate types and temperatures, but it does best in zones with mild summers and cold winters. It does not grow well in very hot and humid areas. Elecampane grows best in part shade but will tolerate full sun.
Soil conditions for elecampane do not need to be precise, provided the soil is well-drained. The plants can tolerate a range of soil types, from sand to clay. Moist, semi-fertile loam is ideal. Water as needed to keep the soil moist but not wet. As a wildflower, elecampane does not require a precise watering schedule, but proper, deep watering will help produce healthy roots for harvesting.
There is no need to feed elecampane flowers with commercial fertilizers or flower food, and organic feeding is best if you plan to harvest the roots for medicinal uses. Simply top-dress the soil with compost in spring.
Elecampane is easy to grow from seeds or with root cuttings. Start seeds in the spring, a few weeks before the last frost. You can grow them indoors, in a greenhouse, or in a cold frame. The seeds need light to germinate, so sow them on the surface or under a very light layer of soil that sunlight can penetrate. Keep the soil moist. The seeds should germinate in about two weeks. Transplant the seedlings to the garden once they sprout two sets of leaves.
Propagate elecampane with cuttings in the fall, after harvesting the root. Select a healthy piece of root that is about 2 inches long and contains a bud or eye. Plant each cutting about 12 inches deep, spacing them at least 12 inches apart. Water the area until the ground freezes. In spring, water carefully to keep the soil moist. The resulting plant should be ready for harvest in two years.
Harvest the root of elecampane in the spring or fall season, beginning in the plant's second year or later. It has a very large and sturdy taproot that requires some digging to harvest. The roots and rhizomes spread out in an octopus shape, so dig a broad area to retain as much of the root as possible. Digging with a pitchfork helps to loosen the soil without damaging the roots too much, but a shovel works fine, too.
You can harvest the entire plant if desired. Or, if the plant is large, you can essentially divide it and harvest just a portion of the root growth and foliage. The foliage likely will have died back and is not worth preserving in any case.
After harvesting the plant, cut off the foliage and clean the roots well. Squeeze the tough outer skin of the root by hand to break it apart, then peel it away to expose the clean, white root interior. Prepare the root interior as desired.