Too often we find Western herbs pigeon-holed into convenient commercialized boxes.
While this expands people’s interest in natural healing, it also limits herbs to one particular application such as echinacea for colds, hawthorn for the heart, St.
John’s wort for depression, and black cohosh for menopause.
Each of these herbs has an array of other important healing uses that are overlooked at best and lost at worst.
By incorporating other cultural traditions through Planetary Herbalism, we can broaden our understanding and use of commonly known western herbs.
It is no different with the easily grown and majestic-looking elecampane (Inula helenium, Asteraceae family), or scabwort (so called because it healed scabs on sheep!).
Known as an expectorant for coughs, bronchitis, and asthma with white phlegm, this herb also does much more as it also treats digestive ailments and alleviates pain.
Used throughout the world for thousands of years, Westerners have traditionally used elecampane both as a medicine and a condiment or cordial for digestion, loss of appetite, and non-ulcer dyspepsia (it was an ingredient in absinthe).
It’s considered not only expectorant but also carminative, diuretic, stomachic, antimicrobial, anthelmintic, anti-asthmatic, vulnerary, a gentle stimulant, and in large doses, emetic.
While elecampane root is brilliant for inflammatory lung complaints with white sputum or phlegm such as cough, bronchitis, asthma, whooping cough, and pleurisy, especially in those with depletion, it has also been used for cholecystitis, gallstones, intestinal worms, rheumatic complaints, genitourinary problems, and consumption (tuberculosis) as well as skin diseases (humans and animals taken both internally and externally) and venomous bites.
It has been applied externally for sciatica and other neuralgic complaints as well.
As if these additional uses don’t add enough to your medicine bag over its lung condition applications, consider that the Chinese use I.
helenium, too, as well as the species I. racemosa (both called tu mu xiang in pinyin).
They consider that it has a warm energy, acrid and bitter flavor, and affects the lungs, liver, spleen, and stomach.
The Chinese use elecampane root to strengthen the Spleen and Stomach, promote the flow of energy, and alleviate pain for symptoms of fullness, distention, and pain of the chest and abdomen, as well as for nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
In other words, this herb not only clears the lungs of phlegm but also cleans and dissolves mucoid matter from the liver and digestive organs.
The Chinese prepare elecampane by dry-frying or baking it until yellow and sifting out the bran.
This moderates its acrid flavor and ability to move energy so it’s better for diarrhea and nausea.
Ayurvedic medicine uses the same two species of elecampane root (Inula helenium and I.
racemosa; pushkaramula), not only to clear the lungs but also as a lung rejuvenative tonic since it promotes the longevity of lung tissue.
Reducing kapha and vata and increasing pitta, it is expectorant, antispasmodic, carminative, analgesic and rejuvenative.
Ayurveda uses Inula helenium for chronic bronchitis, asthma, cardiac asthma, pleurisy, dyspepsia, cough, rheumatism, skin eruptions, all kinds of pain, especially that arising from chill, and animal bites.
They use I. racemosa in veterinary medicine as a tonic and stomachic.
Now to expand our uses of elecampane even more, elecampane flowers are also employed but from the different species, Inula japonica and I.
britannica (although several other local species of Inula are used both by traditional Western practitioners as well as the Chinese).
Western herbalists used elecampane flowers for loss of appetite, cramps, and vomiting and in higher doses, cystitis, as well as for coughs, bronchitis, and pharyngitis.
The Chinese consider elecampane flowers (xuan fu hua) to have a slightly warm energy, bitter, acrid, and salty flavor, and affect the Liver, Lung, Stomach, and Spleen.
The flowers were traditionally steamed and dried, although today they are fried in honey (soak in thin honey then bake or fry over moderate heat until no longer sticky) so they aren’t too drying or deplete the energy.
The Chinese use mobilizing and dispersing elecampane flowers to direct energy downward and clear thin or lacquer-like phlegm from the lungs and stomach.
They stop coughs, soften hardened phlegm, break up clumped accumulations, dissipate pathogenic fluids, and open areas of stagnation.
They treat cough from phlegm and fluids clogging the lungs and thin mucus in the lungs, stomach, or diaphragm causing bronchitis, coughing, asthma, wheezing, shortness of breath, pleurisy, vomiting, hiccough, belching, burping, epigastric obstruction, food stagnation, flank pain, or palpitations with anxiety.
The flowers are particularly good for nausea after chemotherapy and may be useful for upper respiratory allergies.
And what about elecampane leaves and their bitter, aromatic stalks? The Chinese use these, too (from the same species as the flowers).
They are considered a stronger diuretic (moving pathogenic water down and out of the body) while the flowers are better at expectorating phlegm and relieving cough.
Dose: Elecampane root: decoct ½ -1 oz (about 1 tsp.
per pint water and drink 1 cup weak tea 2 times/day or 1 Tablespoon strong decoction 3-4 X/day; 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon bitters 2-3 X/day; 10-40 drops tincture 2-3X/day; also eat candied or as lozenge Elecampane flowers: 3-12 g, infuse 1 Tblsp.
/cup water; d1 “00” cap, 3 times/day; take with honey to moisten the lungs and relieve cough.
Precautions: Elecampane root: High doses can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or gastric spasms.
Western: Avoid during pregnancy and lactation (some say it treats delayed menses); a very warming and drying herb, avoid if there’s heat in other parts of the body or combine with cooling herbs as appropriate.
Chinese: Avoid if in coughs with yellow phlegm or gastric spasms.
Elecampane flowers: Western: Best not to use during pregnancy and lactation.
Chinese: Avoid if there’s a dry cough or in debilitated patients with loose stools.
I recently decided to give elecampane the acid test when I had some phlegm in my lungs.
Michael had just dug up a big root so I chopped it up and made a tea.
I had 3 cups of varying strengths and quantities and learned a great deal.
Elecampane definitely has an acrid flavor with sweet overtones and is slightly aromatic.
I could feel its warming energy enter my lungs, stomach, spleen, and liver.
After the first weak cup of tea I started clearing my lungs while after the second strong cup I was dislodging deeper stomach stagnation that impaired digestion.
As an added benefit, an hour after I drank the strong cup of elecampane tea, I felt renewed energy.
It was not a caffeine surge but gentle and supportive.
In fact, I needed to exercise and didn’t want to but after the elecampane, I not only worked out but also finished several projects.
Furthermore, the next day I discovered a tiny cyst I had was nearly gone! Both of these benefits made sense to me.
The improved energy meant elecampane is also a Qi (energy) tonic, which assists its ability to expectorate phlegm in those with low energy.
This function can be likened to improving and increasing the mitochondria, which not only energizes but also improves digestion and muscle strength and tone – you can read about this comparison in my blog: A Short Comparison of the Spleen in TCM and Western Medicine published in 2009 at planetherbs.com).
In terms of the cyst-reducing action of elecampane, I’ve had experience using phlegm-clearing herbs to eliminate cysts in clients and so knew it was the elecampane that worked here.
Phlegm not only congests the lungs and sinuses but can also create internal blockage causing many other conditions such as cysts, tumors, food stagnation, joint aches and pains, paralysis, hemiplegia, wind-stroke, Bell’s Palsy, and vertigo.
As well, I would use elecampane for snoring and sleep apnea in those with a white tongue coat or white mucus/phlegm.
As if all of this doesn’t expand your medicinal uses of elecampane enough, it may also be used as a substitute for not just one but two Chinese herbs.