Elecampane, stately and striking

By Tom Seymour | Aug 30, 2019
Photo by: Tom Seymour Elecampane flowers have wiry petals.

Here’s a plant that has several uses. First, elecampane, Inula helenium, ranks high as an accent plant. Elecampane also has a long bloom time, adding to its visual appeal.

Next, elecampane has a long history of medical uses and was used for both human and animal ailments. In fact a common name, “horseheal,” alludes to its use on equine skin problems. The Spanish also used it in surgical dressings. In England, confections of elecampane were considered special treats for children. The list of this magnificent plant’s uses is extensive.

Elecampane was revered as a beneficial medicinal plant in ancient times and Pliny said, “Let no day pass without eating some of the roots or elecampane condited [pickled], to help digestion, to expel melancholy and sorrow and to cause mirth.”

Elecampane was first brought to America by early settlers as a home remedy for a number of complaints, and science has since validated the plant’s use as a healer. Elecampane has since escaped cultivation in many parts of the country and is now an established part of America’s flora.

Elecampane features

Most of us will never use elecampane medicinally, although there is no reason why we shouldn’t. But many will instead turn to elecampane as a plant of great beauty, something to marvel at and to astound visitors.

Elecampane, a relative of daisies, grows up to 6 feet tall. Basal, or bottom, leaves grow to 24 inches long and 12 inches wide. Leaves gradually diminish in size from bottom to top of stem. Also, some basal leaves may appear to grow separate from the stem. Except for these “separate” leaves, leaves lack their own stem and so clasp the main stem. Leaf margins, or edges, are coarsely toothed and the bottom of the leaf has a velvety feel.

The flowers have wiry, irregular petals, with a fuzzy central disc. Beginning a bit more than halfway up the main stem, flowers grow on their own stems, either singly or in groups of two or three. Toward the end of the bloom cycle, flowers produce seeds that are borne on white, fuzzy, “parachutes,” much the same as dandelions.

Once established, elecampane readily self-seeds when wind disperses the seeds. In the case of my property, elecampane sometimes pops up, unbidden and of its own volition. But that’s never a problem, since all we need to do to dispose of any unwanted plants is simply to pull them up. Do this as soon as you see the young plants in early spring, while the ground is loose. Otherwise, you’ll need the help of a trowel.

Using elecampane

Elecampane has a place in any garden plan, but often as not, it serves us better as a standalone planting, rather than at the back of the perennial border. My idea of a perfect way to employ elecampane is to place it in a situation where it draws attention to itself. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean it must be totally conspicuous, but rather, in a place that would not otherwise attract the viewer’s attention.

For instance, I have several groups of elecampane growing alongside a trail through an area with tall grass on both sides. The elecampane highlights the trail, turning it into something quite attractive, rather than just a simple path through a small, unmown field.

Also, while a single plant can create an interesting effect, it is better to grow it in loosely related groupings of three or four or even more. This enhances the overall effect. However, even a single elecampane plant will eventually become one of many, since just shaking the plant even a little bit can cause ripe seeds to drift down near the base, where some of them will germinate.

Elecampane is a perennial with a long lifespan. Just how long it can live is debatable. I’ve had it growing in the same place for close to 30 years and it hasn’t begun to die out yet. Which points out the importance of properly siting your plant or plants, since if left undisturbed, they can remain in place for a very long time. So if you are seeking something special for that special place, consider elecampane. It may become your favorite plant.

Tom’s tips

Garlic leaves are turning yellow, signaling that it’s time to harvest your bulbs. When doing so, remember to add compost or other fertilizer to the planting area. Then, come planting time in mid-October, the ground will be fully prepared to begin growing next year’s crop.

Elecampane is a perennial that, once seeded, easily reseeds itself. (Photo by: Tom Seymour)
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