HISTORIES & FOLKLORE
Inula helenium, elecampane, is an herb native to southeastern Europe, but which over time has naturalized in most temperate regions of Europe as well as western Asia and eastern North America. It's most commonly found in meadows and fields, or along roads, fences, and hedgerows in moist areas; and takes two years to mature, and then blooms large, yellow blossoms until it goes to seed and dies back in the autumn to begin the cycle again. This is when the roots are typically harvested, in their second year—if harvested in their first year, they're too tender and not yet ready for culinary or medicinal use; and in their third year, they're too woodsy and tough. The history of elecampane's Latin species name helenium might refer to Helen of Troy; as it's believed she may have held a branch or a bundle of the herb in her hand as she was whisked away to Troy by Paris, or that elecampane grew from her tears which fell to the ground as she was abducted from Sparta. Yet another story tells of Helen's use of elecampane against venomous snake bites. It seems the word inula may be the name of the type of flower itself. We can trace the etymology through the Middle English name, elena campana, which comes from the Medieval Latin enula campana, literally translated as, field elecampane. Enula/inula = the flower; campana = of the field. Throughout North America, but predominantly in East Coast and Northeast Nations, Native practitioners use elecampane as a food but also for a variety of ailments or as a colic remedy for horses— it is supposed the common name "horseheal" comes from North American Indigenous uses.
In Northern and Continental European peoples across Nordic, Celtic, and Germanic cultures, who associated the plant with fairies or elves, the herb served as a remedy for elfshot—an affliction in which a person feels acute sharp pains in the body with no other indications of illness; or a sudden drain of energy, giving the plant its common name "elf wort" or "elf dock". An Irish folklore database has one entry recording elecampane as curative for “lung troubles”, while pre-Norman Anglo-Saxon writings in the Lacnunga describe elecampane's total culinary, medicinal, and magical properties. In the Leechbook III manuscript, elecamane, known as eolone, appears several times in various remedies, from extremely practical directives for jaundice to warding against the devil and madness; or to cure afflictions brought about by witches, demons, or elves. The directives call for a variety of applications from steam baths, to soaking baths; salves, and smoke fumigation. Elecampane's use as an herb charm is known throughout various other European cultures as well, sewn into various articles of clothing as a way to attract love, warn against dishonesty, or as a protective ward.
Elecampane was considered by the Greeks and Romans to be one of their most important herbs. The Romans made a delicate sauce out of elecampane root to aid digestion after rich meals, and Hippocrates lists the herb as a stimulant to the organs. Pliny the Elder suggested “let no day pass without eating some of the roots of Enula, considered to help digestion and cause mirth”. Galen who recommended the root as medicine said, “It is good for passions of the hucklebone called sciatica.” Through the 19th century, elecampane was commonly grown in the European herb garden, as the root not only offered benefit as a medicine but as a food, and was favored as a sweetmeat when candied. Via Dr. William Thomas Fernie in Herbal Simples Approved for Modern Uses of Cure, 1897:
Some fifty years ago, the candy was sold commonly in London as flat, round cakes being composed largely of sugar and coloured with cochineal*. A piece was eaten each night and morning for asthmatic complaints, whilst it was customary when travelling by a river, to suck a bit of the root against poisonous exhalations and bad air. The candy may still be had from our confectioners, but now containing no more of the plant Elecampane than there is of barley in Barley Sugar.
*a pigment made from an insect
In addition to being candied, the root was made into a decoction and from that, lozenges were made towards the end of relieving cough and in particular, whooping-cough. Occasionally, it was also made into the form of a confection for pastilles, a type of medicinal candy similar to a lozenge but chewable/chewy, one ounce of powdered root being mixed with two ounces of honey. The origin of pastilles, it should be noted, are their function as medicinal incense in which herbs were pressed into a pill shape and burned to either fumigate a space or as a curative for disease.
Absinthe, which originated in the Canton of Neufchâtel, Switzerland, commonly includes elecampane root in various recipes across Swiss and French recipes. Medieval herbalists, in particular, monks; used elecampane as the main ingredient in a digestive, or cordial wine, called “potio Paulina” after St. Paul’s suggestion to use a little wine for the stomach’s sake. One traditional method calls for the root to be added to a port with currants and sugar for its digestive and anti-parasitic properties. And the Pennsylvania Dutch were known to infuse wine and beer with elecampane root which was cooked down to a syrup in recipes similar to this one:
One handful each of elecampane, dogwood bark, wild cherry bark, and hops, added to two quarts of water and boiled down to one quart. Add one pound of sugar and boil down to a pint. Take several teaspoons every day. (The Red Church or the Art of Pennsylvania German Braucherei, by C.R. Bilardi)
A medieval Italian recipe for brodo, a sweet and sour fish recipe, calls for elecampane to be fried along with skinned almonds, raisins, and prunes in the oil of the fish with onions. Then pepper, saffron, ginger, and cardamom are pounded and mixed with this mixture along with wine and vinegar. In typical medieval culinary fashion, the lines between sweet and savory are blurred in this classic dish to create a complex array of flavors. The book this recipe is taken from does note an uncertainty towards which part of the plant would have been used, but based on the materia medica of the time and its use in pastilles, we can guess it was most likely the root. Additionally we find many recipes for various dishes out of English and German medieval cookbooks from ground elecampane as a powder or used as an ingredient in aspic, to a recipe for rosemary water.
Renaissance kids looked forward to both Christmas and Easter when they would receive licorice confections, which often included various herbs including elecampane. Licorice followed settlers to the Americas, where the herbaceous confections were used to cure respiratory and digestive problems. The King’s American Dispensatory of 1854 describes elecampane as an aromatic stimulant and tonic, and is much used in chronic pulmonary affections and weakness of the digestive organs. Later on the Eclectics who referenced this book (the Eclectics were a botanical school of medicine in the 1800s-early 1900s) incorporated elecampane into their materia medica from which it was further included in the US Pharmacopeia of 1890.
As mentioned earlier, elecampane has associations with the elves or fairies, and specifically as a curative for elf shot in humans (elf shot is most commonly known to afflict livestock and in particular cattle; these circumstances have a variety of other cures). It was also known to be used as a kind of incense or smoke for consumption (inhalation) to induce a clairsentient state for lucid dreaming or contact with spirits. It is also often smoldered for use in journeying or divination. Elecampane is used for magical works in love, protection, psychic powers, and dreaming. It’s excellent for seeking contact with nature and land spirits. With caution, it may be useful or has potential to be useful in building good relationships with the Good Neighbors. It can be used in amulets, sachets, incense, potions, baths, washes, and oils.
Known to the Saxons as eolone, the leaves grow large but in Saxon magic, the power is regarded to live in the root. A potion prepared as a decoction was thought to relieve respiratory troubles and fortify the myne (emotions and memories). It might also be used in love potions. This plant is beloved of the Alfar, as shown by its folk name elfdock. Therefore elecampane is used as an offering to them in either preparation (especially the root is candied) or in planting; or it’s said that carrying it will make them both better disposed toward you, and turn away some of their lesser spells. Carve the rune Wunjo/Wyn into the root as a talisman; it is associated with Ljossalfheim (more commonly known as Álfheimr, one of the nine realms of Norse cosmology, known as the “land of the elves” it is located near Asgard), or Ljosalfheim which means “realm of light”.
Alaric Albertsson, A Handbook of Saxon Sorcery & Magic: Wyrdworking, Rune Craft, Divination, & Wortcunning, Woodbury MN, Llewellyn Worldwide, 2017
Alaric Hall, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender, and Identity, Woodbridge: Boydell, 2007
Brooke Bullock, Leechbook III, A New Digital Edition (A Senior Thesis)
— ointments, steam bath
— who has sex with the devil— elf disease/fumigation
— the devil and insanity
— honey and beer for jaundice
— for mad-heart (with burdock!)
C. R. Bilardi, The Red Church Or the Art of Pennsylvania German Braucherei, Sunland CA, Pendraig Publishing, 2009
Daniel E. Moerman, Native American Medicinal Plants, An Ethnobotanical Dictionary, Portland Oregon, Timber Press, 2009
Deni Bown, Encyclopedia of Herbs & Their Uses, New York, Dorling Kindersley Publishing, 1995
Dr. William Thomas Fernie, Herbal Simples Approved for Modern Uses of Cure, 1897
Elecampane in Duchas.ie
John Michael Greer, Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, Woodbury MN, Llewellyn Worldwide, 2000
Oswald T. Cockayne; Leechdoms, Wortcunning, And Starcraft Of Early England, (an early translation of the Leechbook III and Bald's Leechbook) London : Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green 1864
Margaret Grieve, (1931). A Modern Herbal
Scott Cunningham, Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, Woodbury MN, Llewellyn Worldwide, 1985
Melitta Weiss Adamson, Food in Medieval Times; Food through History, Westport, CT, Greenwood Press 2004
Redon, Odile; Sabban, Francoise; Serventi, Silvano; The Medieval Kitchen- Recipes from France and Italy, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998
Medieval Cookery, To Prepare a Meat Aspic, excerpt from Das Kuchbuch der Sabina Welserin, Germany, 16th century - V. Armstrong, trans.
Medieval Cookery, How to Preserve Eringo Roots, excerpt from Delights for Ladies, England 1609
Medieval Cookery, Clat, excerpt from A Forme of Cury, England 1390
Medieval Cookery, To Make Rosemary Water, excerpt from The Good Housewife’s Jewell, England 1596
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