A Writers Guide to Elfwort

elfwort blossom

elfwort blossom

Elfwort is an herb in the sunflower family that can grow up to 5 feet in height. These plants have large, toothed leaves with woolly undersides. The 3-4 inch flowers have 50-100 thin, almost wispy, yellow-rayed petals.

Particulars

Botanical Name: Inula helenium

Common/Folk Names: Alantwurzel (German), Aunée (French), Dyavosyl (Devil’s Strength), Elecampane, Elfdock, Elefwort, Enula Campana (Spanish/Italian), Eolone (Old English), Helenio, Helenium, Horse-elder, Horseheal, Scabwort, Marchalan (in Welsh), Nursewort, Velvet Dock, Wild Sunflower, and Yellow Starwort.

Life Cycle: perennial
Habitat: moist, shady areas, edges of fields and woods
Blooms: mid to late summer

Smell: the root is aromatic, somewhat camphoraceous, foral — a little sweet (similar to violet), and a little dirty
Taste: the root is gummy at first becoming aromatic, slightly bitter, and pungent when chewed

History

  • The thick root rhizome was used for medicinal purposes.
  • Elfwort was sacred to the ancient Celts.
  • Pliny’s Natural History stated it was used as a medicine and as a condiment.
  • Medicinal uses included: one soaking in an elfwort bath to ease arthritis; boiling dried roots in water to clear out germs from a sick room; as a salve to relieve muscular aches and pains; and as a tonic for treating whooping cough, intestinal parasites, scabies, and night sweats.
  • An 1817 New England Almanac wrote that is was a cure for hydrophobia. The root was bruised and used with a strong decoction of milk.
  • Both the oil and root were used to treat bacterial and fungal infections.
  • In Russia, elfwort was used somewhat like valerian.
  • Also in Russia, the root was preserved in vodka, then used as a restorative after illness and for digestive problems.
  • In Germany, it was traditional to put a blossom in the middle of a bouquet. It symbolized the sun and the head of Odin.
  • In Asia, it was used to treat cholera, malarial fever, dysentery, snakebites, insect stings, and nausea.
  • An old European method of treating indigestion was to create a cordial made by infusing the root with sugar and currants in port wine.
  • Elfwort was also used in horse medicine, giving rise to the common name horseheal.
  • It became known as scabwort because it cured sheep of a disease called scab.
  • Elfwort was used to flavor desserts, fish sauces, and candies.
  • In France and Switzerland, it is used in the manufacturing of absinthe.
  • A blue dye has been extracted from the root by bruising and macerating it, then mixing it with ashes and whortleberries (billberry).

Lore

  • The names Helenio and Helenium were given to the plant because Helen of Troy was picking the flowers when Paris kidnapped her. Another version states that the flowers sprang from the ground where Helen’s tears fell when Paris kidnapped her.
  • In Wales, the root was put into ale with other herbs as a treatment for poisonous bites. The ale had to be drunk at the New or Full Moon after the afflicted person had bathed in the sea.
  • It is a favorite plant of elves. It is also used against bad elven magic (stabbing the root cancels out an elf spell).
  • Elfwort attracts fairies.
  • Chewing on a piece of dried root when passing near a polluted, stinky river will protect the person from whatever caused the smell.
  • There is an old folktale where six brothers were cursed to live as swans. Their sister had to make shirts for them out of elfwort flowers so they could be transformed back into humans.
  • The flowers are dried and burned for purification.
  • Spells and rituals use elfwort for divination, dreamwork, protection, psychic powers, love, scrying, and shape-shifting.

In the Language of Flowers, it means: tears

This is a reference for fiction writers and should not be taken as medical or spiritual advice.

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17 Comments

  1. Lovely flower. I’ve never seen this one. I just looked it up, and it appears not to grow in tropical climates.

  2. I’m thinking that elfwort is a rather inconvenient cure for poisonous bites if you have to wait until the right cycle of the moon to use it!

  3. That is a plant with a lot of possibilities. I’d love to name a character elfwort. Off to consider that. Thanks.

  4. This is a new flower to me (which would not be unusual). Interesting looking variation on the sunflower that I traditionally know.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

  5. Hi Holly – what an amazing herb … and as you mention – lots of creative ideas could arise here … stories, lore as too murder …

    What a great read .. cheers Hilary

  6. Fascinating, Holly, particularly since I’m writing about the Celtic Morrígan at present. I just checked and elfwort is available at my neighborhood botanica for $1.95. Given all its properties, that sounds like a steal. 🙂

  7. I’m guessing Helen had even more night sweats after Paris kidnapped her…. no help from elfwort there

  8. Oooh, this sounds like a cool plant. I like the ones steeped in lore.

  9. Super fascinating. I love learning about the medicinal uses especially.

  10. That’s interesting about chewing on the root protecting from polluted river smell. Love the name of the flower.

  11. What an interesting flower! I am partial to sunflowers, so would be drawn to this had I come across it. I had no idea about all the interesting details. Thanks for sharing with us!

  12. Love all the lore. Now I know it’s tasty and good for me, too. 😉 Don’t know if it’s around here, though.

  13. Oh, some of these uses could prove handy in apocalypse tales! Thank you! Always good to know a few natural sources for things and anti-bacterial and germ killing uses would definitely have some easy applications!

  14. I’ll have to plant some in my backyard this year to attract the fairies! 🙂 Thanks for all these great little facts.

  15. Is it weird that I love saying the name?? Very interesting learning about this! You had me at flavoring desserts 😉

  16. So very pretty.

    PS: On your most recent post, I commented but it was under Whisk. I may be in your Spam folder. Not sure. Thanks.

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