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Elecampane

( Originally Published 1933 )



INULA HELENIUM, L.

Compositae Perennial

Elecampane is not a potherb or a perfume plant, but is included because of sentiment, and because, with its somewhat coarse, daisy-like golden flowers, it is a handsome plant for a background to the other herbs. It is native to Europe and northern Asia and naturalized in the United States.

Root. The root is thick and branched, blackish out-side and white within; very bitter-tasting when fresh; and is said to have an aromatic, camphory scent which improves when dried.

Stem. The stem is over four feet high, brownish-green, round, and roughly hairy.

Leaf. The huge, coarse basal leaves have a petiole of seven inches and the leaf is fifteen inches long. The bottom stem-leaves clasp the stem and measure sixteen inches in length and decrease in size as they rise. The tips are yellowish-green, soft to the touch, very downy on the under side, with rough hairs on the upper surface. The margins are scalloped, a long one alternating with a short one.

Flower. The flowers are either solitary, or a few are borne at the tips of the stems. They have a golden-brown disk surrounded by a wheel-like circle of golden yellow, thinly spaced, ray florets, the tips of which are fringed. They measure three and one-half inches across.

HISTORY AND LEGEND

Inula helenium was described by Dioscorides, and Horace told how, when the Romans were surfeited with rich food, they craved turnips and "the appetizing enulas from Campana." Saint Isidor of Seville in the seventh century mentioned it as did Ibn Baithar. Parkinson and Culpeper spoke of using the roots "beaten" in a new ale, or beer which when drunk daily was said to strengthen and clear the eyesight, a superstition dating back to Pliny, who probably got it from earlier writers. It is a very old German custom when gathering a bunch of herbs to have the Inula helenium in the center of the nosegay, for the flower resembles the sun and so symbolizes Odin's or Baldur's head (later Saint John's), Josselyn mentions it, and it is in Claytonius' "Flora Virginica" of 1762. It is on the list of seeds for sale in the Boston Evening Post of 1771, and Bartram advertised it in his catalogue of 1814.

USES

Medicine. The roots are candied for a cough medicine.

It is supposed to have tonic and stimulating properties. It is in most official pharmacopoeias, but not in that of the United States. The dried roots are used internally as an expectorant. Elecampane roots and juniper berries are the two main bases in domestic veterinary practice, being given to horses for coughing and to sleek their coats.

Food. Even when sugared the roots are exceedingly bitter, and seem to grow more so after they have been in the mouth some time. It is also used to flavor absinth.

CULTURE

Elecampane is said to thrive best in a deep clay loam which has been well prepared and supplied with moisture. The plants should be three or four feet apart.

It is best propagated by division of the roots, but grows readily from seed sown out-of-doors. It does not flower the first year from seed.

Harvest. The fresh roots are gathered in the autumn from two-year-old plants, and are dried in the shade. Fifty thousand pounds of elecampane roots a year were imported into the United States before 1914.



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