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Elecampane

Inula helenium

  • Name also: Elecampagne, Alant, Elfwort, Elf Dock, Horse-heal, Scabwort, Wild Sunflower
  • Family: Daisy Family – Compositae, subfamily Asteroideae
    (formerly Aster Family – Asteraceae)
  • Growing form: Perennial herb.
  • Height: 60–200 cm (25–80 in.). Stem shortly haired, green–violet–dark reddish brown.
  • Flower: Flowers 6–8 cm (2.5–3 in.) wide, single flower-like capitula surrounded by involucral bracts. Capitulum flowers yellow, ray-florets tongue-like; disk florets tubular, small. Stamens 5. Gynoecium composed of 2 fused carpels. Involucral bracts overlap in many rows, outer ones leafy, ovate, recurved, hairy, inner ones membranous, straight. Capitula borne in a lax corymb.
  • Leaves: Alternate, basal leaves stalked, upper stem leaves stalkless, almost amplexicaul. Blade elliptic, up to 70 cm (30 in) long on basal leaves, cordate based, densely toothed, upper surface rough, underside brownish tomentose.
  • Fruit: Bristly, glabrous achene with unbranched hairs on tip.
  • Habitat: Around dwelling areas, yards, parks, waste ground, roadsides, beside fields, meadows.
  • Flowering time: July–September.

Elecampane looks so exotic in Finland that one immediately suspects that it must be native to another land. During the Age of Utility in Sweden-Finland at the end of the 18th century, there began a search for new useful plants from beyond our borders. Elecampane was one of these finds, and it spread to southern and western Finland in particular. The eastern parts of Finnish Kymijoki belonged at that time to Russia, and the drive to educate the population didn’t extend beyond the border. This can still be seen in the way that elecampane and many other old useful plants have spread: they are mainly on the western side of Kymijoki. Elecampane does not grow any further north than central Finland. It is easiest to find in and around old mansion and vicarage gardens. It is a vigorous plant that thrives and is able to spread even when it’s left to its own devices. Elecampane is among the most handsome of plants and it attracts an abundance of butterflies to the garden. The plant might also be of interest to cats, as it is claimed that it has a relaxing effect on mice.

Elecampane was already an important medicinal plant to the ancient Romans and Greeks. Rhizomes and roots that were collected in the autumn were used to treat intestinal worms, lung and air passage diseases and disorders, catarrh, to improve digestion, and as an antiseptic in the treatment of wounds. The plant’s thick rhizome contains high levels of inulin, just like Spanish salsify (Scorzonera hispanica), another member of the Daisy family. Elecampane is cultivated for its roots, which are used in the kitchen as a cooking ingredient and to flavour schnapps. The active ingredients in the root can cause nausea however if they are consumed in high doses. In the Balkans and central Europe it is still cultivated to some extent for the same reasons as it was in the Middle Ages.

Elecampane resembles its close eastern European relative, heartleaf oxeye (Telekia speciosa). It is also a large, old-fashioned perennial which has survived for perhaps decades in old gardens or sometimes as an escape in southern Finland. Elecampane is however hairier, has a little larger flowers, and its flowers are bright yellow. Heartleaf oxeye also likes damp ground, while a dryish, sun-baked place suits elecampane best.

Other species from the same family

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