Elecampane is and introduced erect perennial forb growing 3 to 6 feet high on stout hairy furrowed stems, usually single but sometimes branched near the top.
Leaves: The first year the plant only produces a clump of long ovate to elliptical, light-green colored basal leaves. These have a rough upper surface, a downy-hairy underside and irregularly toothed edges, pointed at both ends and long stalks. Stalks are densely hairy and the entire lower leaf can be up to two feet long and 6 to 8 inches wide. These resemble those of Mullein but are larger. Later when the flowering stalk rises the stem leaves become smaller and stalkless to clasping instead of stalked. Leaves have a main mid-rib vein and a series of almost parallel branching laterals.
The floral array varies from a single stalked flowerhead to a stalked array of a few heads.
Flowers: The flower head is somewhat hemispheric to bell-shaped, 2-1/2 to 3-3/4 inches wide with two types of flowers. There are 50 to 100+ ray florets with narrow yellow rays. These are pistillate and fertile. They surround a flattened group of 100+ disc florets, with yellow tubular corollas that have 5 lobes at the tip. These are bisexual and fertile. The lobes spread open as the floret matures and florets open from the edge to the center of the disc. Five stamens tightly surround the style. The outside of the flower head has three series of phyllaries, the outer ones ovate to oblong with velvety hairy outer surface. The inner phyllaries become more narrow and less hairy. These are spreading when the flower is open, not appressed. On the stalk of the flower head will normally be found a small hairy leaf-like bract.
Seed: Fertile flowers produce a 3 to 4 mm long brown 4-sided non-hairy dry seed (a cypsela) with a bristly pale reddish pappus attached for wind dispersion.
Medicinal uses - see notes below.
Habitat: Elecampane is found in moist to wet disturbed sites. It grows from a large succulent spindle-shaped rootstock which has brown branching fleshy and aromatic roots. It tolerates sun but does best in shady to partial sunny spots with loamy well drained soil. It is easily grown but probably for a specimen plant rather than as a grouping.
Names: The genus Inula is the old Latin name for this plant, well known to the Romans. It is derived from the Greek inaein, meaning 'to clean' - as in its medicinal effects. The species helenium is also a plant genus name and is thought to have been named by Linnaeus for Helen of Troy. The author name for the plant classification - 'L.' is for Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. For the origin of some of the common names see the notes below.
Above: Elecampane is a tall plant with large coarse leaves. The floral array varies from a single flower stalk as seen in the 1st photo or an array of several stalked heads - 2nd photo. 3rd photo - The stems are ridged and the upper leaves are stalkless to clasping the stem.
Below: The outer fertile ray florets surround the central disc of fertile disc florets. Disc florets are bisexual with corollas that have a five-lobed lip and open from the outer edge toward the center.
Below: 1st photo - The large lower leaves are pointed at both ends and on long stalks. Frequently they fold along the main rib toward the center. 2nd photo - The underside has fine hair all over, more on the main rib.
Below: The outside of the flower head are three series of phyllaries, the outer ones ovate to oblong with velvety hairy outer surface. The inner phyllaries become more narrow and less hairy. These are spreading when the flower is open, not appressed. Part of one of the leafy bracts is seen at the bottom right.
Notes: Elecampane was introduced to the Wildflower Garden by Eloise Butler in October 1912 when she obtained 3 plants from Mr. Chase in Boulder Colorado. He was a frequent source of plants for Eloise. It was not present on Martha Crone's 1951 census and was never replanted as it was not a native species. It is the only species of Inula known to be escaped to the wild in Minnesota. Originally the plant was brought to North America from Europe for its medicinal uses.
More on names: Mrs. Grieve (Ref.#7) notes that at the beginning of the 5th century the plant was known as Inula campana. By medieval times it was often written Enula and Elecampane is a corruption of the post-Linnaean name Enula campana. The names involving 'dock' are from Scandinavian countries where it is known by those names. As to the reference to horses, Ada George reports (Ref. #6b) that in olden days people in the country grew a patch of Elecampane in order to use the fleshy root to feed asthmatic horses. As to 'Scabwort', read Culpepper below.
Medicinal use: While the old Romans such as Pliny considered the root to help with digestion, and leaving aside the treatment of horses, the plant ended up in many official pharmacopoeias for the treatment of coughs, consumption and other pulmonary complaints. For complaint of the stomach it was frequently used with other herbs. It primary substance obtained from the root is Inulin, which is widely found in the roots of the Asteraceae but in good quantity in Elecampane. The powdered root could be used to make a tonic, decoction or tincture. The leaves could also be eaten as a potherb but people who have tried them find them bitter and disagreeable in odor. A lesser known use of the root was to candy the cooked root. John Parkinson wrote about that in 1640 (Theatrum Botanicum).
Culpepper wrote (Ref.#4b): "The fresh roots of Elecampane preserved with sugar, or made into a syrup or conserve, are very effectual to warm a cold windy stomach, or the pricking therein, and stitches in the sides caused by the spleen; and to help the cough, shortness of breath, and wheezing in the lungs. The dried root made into powder, and mixed with sugar, and taken, serveth to the same purpose; and is also profitable for those who have their urine stopped, or the stopping of women's courses, the pains of the mother, and of the stone in the reins, kidnies, or bladder....The root boiled well in vinegar, beaten afterwards, and made into an ointment with hog's suet, or oil of trotters, is an excellent remedy for scabs or itch in young and old; the places also bathed or washed with the decoction, doth the same...." Pg. 123, The English Physician Enlarged, 1652, Crosby's Improved Edition, 1810.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"