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.
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