Anyway, I wanted to talk about elecampane this month because it is a staple of herbal respiratory care in the Western (Euro-American) herbal tradition and one of the more important herbs for people with chronic respiratory diseases to know about! It is one of the first herbs I recommend to people who have lingering lung infections that won't clear. In regular doses this can be very helpful for people with functionally normal lungs to help clear bronchitis or aid in recovery from respiratory viruses. It's especially helpful when you want to make sure a cold doesn't settle in the chest and turn into a lung infection. In higher doses this may be helpful for people with CF, in combination with other herbs and therapies, who are battling lung infections. It is antimicrobial in the respiratory tract and digestive tract, and is also an expectorant, helping us to thin mucus and clear it out more easily through coughing. Here is a more detailed monograph from my Materia Medica on this helpful herb...
Elecampane, elfwort, or elfdock
Perennial shrub with alternate leaves, big yellow aster-like flowers. Native to Europe. Likes to grow at the bottom of low, moist meadows.
Commercial Sources & Handling
If you buy it in bulk as dried, cut and sifted root it should have a musty characteristic smell. It does have some volatile oils, which you should be able to smell. Most often available as dried root or tincture.
Growing & Harvesting Information
Likes moist to average soil and moist meadows. Grows best by root division or seed. Likes full sun. Harvest when 3-5 years old, in the autumn. If it's too big or too old, the roots get woody and gnarly and are hard to harvest. Harvest a medium sized plant. Leave the center root crown and cut the side roots. Replant the crown to propagate again next year. Grows well wild and in cultivation in the northeastern US (and probably other climates too), so try to grow it yourself!
Bitter and fragrant, soapy tasting.
Pretty neutral energetically, which makes it helpful for most respiratory conditions independent of the individual's constitution. This herb is slightly warm and slightly moist.
- Antimicrobial* – active against bacteria, especially gram-positive bacteria including multiple strains of Staph.; against protozoa like giardia; worms; also antiviral.
- Warming bitter digestive – cholagogue (stimulates bile release from the gallbladder) and carminative (relieves gas and bloating).
- Diaphoretic, expectorant* (encourages clearance of respiratory mucus), digestive stimulant, digestive tonic.
Respiratory infections with yellow-green mucus. Especially helpful when respiratory problems lead to indigestion, or vice-versa.
The genus Inula has been used all across Eurasia as a respiratory and digestive remedy in many different traditional medical systems for many hundreds of years, including for many of the clinical uses mentioned below . Inula helenium specifically has a long history of use in European, British, and American herbal medicine, and was a favorite of the Eclectic Physicians of the late 1800's and early 1900's [2,3,4].
- Respiratory – warming and stimulating expectorant for lung and sinus congestion, esp. long-term congestion. Acute and chronic bronchitis*, cold catarrhal lung conditions, colds and flu, whooping cough, damp asthma, COPD, croup, tuberculosis, pneumonia, and as a respiratory tonic (improving the health and resilience of the respiratory system, ok for use long term with chronic disease).
- Strong supporter of the muco-ciliary escalator.
- If bronchitis cilia are damaged, elecampane helps restore the function of dysfunctional cilia.
- Digestive system – warming bitter that strengthens digestive function. For weak digestion, warming to the stomach, “damp spleen” (TCM diagnosis), sluggish liver function, dysbiosis, dysentery (including worms, giardia, amoebas)[1,6].
- Especially useful in people with GI issues who also have respiratory issues.
- Skin – scabs, itching, sores, rashes (internally and topically) in humans and livestock. Local antiseptic for wounds. Active against staphylococcus including MRSA .
- Nervous irritability related to nervous coughs.
- Volatile oils – helenin. Antimicrobial.
- Phenolic compounds – cafeic acid, chlorogenic acid, flavonoids (rutin, quercetin, campferol, luteolin). These are antioxidant, antibacterial, and tonic.
- Sesquiterpene lactones – alantolactone, isoalantolactone. These are antihelminthic, anti-amoeba, anti-parasitic.
- Inulin (if harvested in the fall). This is a prebiotic fiber that supports the growth of good gut flora.
- Saponins (makes the tincture foamy). These give elecampane its expectorant quality, being slightly irritating to the GI tract and reflexively stimulating the mucocilliary escalator in the lungs and sinuses.
Unfortunately there is relatively little modern science conducted on elecampane, though there have been some in vitro and mouse studies, and several hundred years of clinical use. However, a 2015 review by Kenny, et al. discusses the modern studies on the antimicrobial actions of elecampane, and is very helpful in understanding its use to us from a biochemical standpoint. This review explains that elecampane was shown to be significantly effective against methicillin-sensitive Staphylococcus aureus (MSSA) as well as MRSA, mildly effective against Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and strongly effective against Mycobacterium tuberculosis. One particularly fascinating piece of information is that one study showed isolated isoalantolactone from elecampane inhibited alpha-toxin expression in S. aureus, and so protected mice from developing pneumonia. Alpha-toxin is a chemical produced by S. aureus that is critical to the development of pneumonia, therefore even if elecampane is not combatting infection by its direct bacteria-killing power, it may prevent infection or the spread of infection by inhibiting certain toxins produced by pathogens . This is why whole-herb preparations of plants are so important: complex living beings like plants contain hundreds of different chemicals that have complex and unanticipated actions on the human body. Taking isolated constituents of plants, such as straight isoalantolactone or berberine, is often not as effective as take the whole plant extract.
- Caution in pregnancy because it’s a stimulating expectorant (could cause stimulation of the uterine muscles too).
- The flowers can cause contact dermatitis for sensitive people or those with an aster allergy.
- If used long term, make sure probiotics are used to restore gut flora.
Preparation & Dosage
This herb is best taken at moderate to high doses when you've already got an infection, or short periods at a lower dose as a respiratory tonic for preventative purposes during high-risk times, like during cold or flu season.
- Capsules or decoction = 1-4g root 3xday
- Tea = 1 oz per 1 pint of water. Infusion is ok if the root is ground up very well or powdered. Better in decoction if it's chunky.
- Tincture = 1:3 fresh, 1:5 dry, 60% alc., 1-2 mL 3-4xday
- For severe infections: as a simple up to 5mL 4-5xday (this is a very high dose)
- Can make into a syrup, good with elderberry. Great in cough syrups with things like horehound, wild cherry bark, elderberry, echinacea, etc.
- Good when combined with other aromatics to improve taste.
- Respiratory tincture: great combined with thyme and osha (for more serious conditions).
- Respiratory tonic decoction: with astragalus and medicinal mushrooms, especially reishi.
 Seca, Ana ML, et al. "The genus Inula and their metabolites: from ethnopharmacological to medicinal uses." Journal of ethnopharmacology154.2 (2014): 286-310.<https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Ana_Seca2/publication/261800169_The_genus_Inula_and_their_metabolites_From_ethnopharmacological_to_medicinal_uses/links/0deec5375d0c0561dc000000.pdf>
 King's American Dispensary, 1889. <http://www.henriettes-herb.com/eclectic/kings/inula.html>
 Ellingwood, 1919. <http://www.henriettes-herb.com/eclectic/ellingwood/inula.html>
 Felter, 1922. <http://www.henriettes-herb.com/eclectic/felter/inula.html>
 Kenny, C. R., A. Furey, and B. Lucey. "A post-antibiotic era looms: can plant natural product research fill the void?." British journal of biomedical science72.4 (2015): 191-200. <http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/citedby/10.1080/09674845.2015.11665752?scroll=top&needAccess=true> [You can get acces to the whole paper through Sci-Hub].
 Urban, Jan, et al. "In vitro anthelmintic effects of medicinal plants used in Czech Republic." Pharmaceutical Biology 46.10-11 (2008): 808-813. <http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13880200802315618>