Elecampane (Inula helenium), also called horse-heal or marchalan (in Welsh), is a perennial composite plant common in many parts of Great Britain, and ranges throughout central and Southern Europe, and in Asia as far eastwards as the Himalayas. It is naturalized in North America.
Other common names include elfdock; aunee (French); énula campana (Spanish); echter alant (German); and enula campana (Italian).
It is a rather rigid herb, the stem of which attains a height of from 90 cm to 150 cm (3 to 5 feet); the leaves are large and toothed, the lower ones stalked, the rest embracing the stem; the flowers are yellow, 5 cm (2 inches) broad, and have many rays, each three-notched at the extremity. The root is thick, branching and mucilaginous, and has a warm, bitter taste and a camphoraceous odor with sweet floral (similar to violet) undertones.
For medicinal purposes, the roots should be procured from plants not more than two or three years old. Besides the storage polysaccharide inulin (C6H12O6[C6H10O5]n), a polymer of fructose, the root contains helenin (C15H20O2), a stearoptene, which may be prepared in white acicular crystals, insoluble in water, but freely soluble in alcohol. When freed from the accompanying inula-camphor by repeated crystallization from alcohol, helenin melts at 110 °C.
Susan O'Shea, a research student at Cork Institute of Technology (CIT), Ireland, has shown that extracts from the herb kill methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) as well as a broad spectrum of other bacteria.
The plant's specific name, helenium, derives from Helen of Troy; elecampane is said to have sprung up from where her tears fell. It was sacred to the ancient Celts, and once had the name "elfwort".
The root was employed by the ancients, mentioned in Pliny, Natural History 19.29 both as a medicine and as a condiment, and in England it was formerly in great repute as an aromatic tonic and stimulant of the secretory organs. As a drug, however, the root is now seldom resorted to except in veterinary practice.
John Gerard recommended elecampane for "the shortness of breath". Today herbalists prescribe it as an expectorant and for water retention. It has minor applications as a tonic and to bring on menstruation.
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- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Elecampane". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press