Helen of Troy’s Tears in My Garden
by Angie Littlefield
I saw a tall weed with a bright-yellow flower in a sumpy ditch when I was driving around a few years back. I stopped to see if I could pull it out, considering its roots might yield from the squidgy soil. Yes! The plant gave way with a hefty pull. The roots came out with a tuber look to them, the same as comfrey root. That was daunting, as one little seedling of comfrey from a tour of a “wild” garden had led to an invasion of comfrey throughout my yard. I planted the flower, which I dubbed “Mrs. Yellow,” in the same side yard where the comfrey had established clear dominance. Let the best plant win, I thought. My gardener’s credo is “survival of the fittest.”
Flash forward a few years, and the comfrey had lost out to triumphant Mrs. Yellow. Recently, a guest with a plant identifier app took a photo of its fine spread and said in a blasé fashion, “Oh, that’s Inula Helenium*.” I discovered that Mrs. Yellow goes by an entire roster of names because it’s ancient. It’s native all the way from Spain to western China and became naturalized in Europe and North America. For “naturalized” read, it successfully invaded foreign soils. Pliny the Elder mentioned it in his Natural History in AD 77. The ancient Celts believed the massive Inula Helenium leaves could hide elves and fairy folk and hence they called it elfwort or elfdock. The Helenium name is derived from Helen of Troy in the track of whose tears those glorious flowers appeared when Paris abducted her from Sparta to Troy.
The big discovery for me was that the root was touted for treatment of lung conditions such as bronchitis, from which I tend to suffer. Its expectorant qualities made for a productive cough. I love that phrase, “productive cough.” May all our coughs turn out to be productive! More research turned up variants of a homemade cough syrup, all of which used honey, which by itself is great for coughs.
The inulin (healthy starch) content of Inula Helenium is highest in the fall (up to 44 percent), and that’s the time to dig up those hairy tuber roots. Use a scrub brush to clean the thick parts. Slice into bite-sized chunks and keep some for drying to use in winter for tea. Here is the recipe I cobbled together from different sources, all of which were very simple, i.e., add honey:
My homemade cough syrup recipe à la Helen of Troy:
Fill small sized mason jars half-way with thinly sliced medallions of freshly cleaned Inula Helenium roots—the size of jar you would use for jams and jellies.
Fill enough honey into the jars to cover the medallions—but not to the very top of the jar. Leave room at the top for the mixture to expand. Close the jars tightly.
For the next few days, while you’re making your morning coffee, turn the jars over so that the mixture of honey and roots is lightly agitated.
On the third day, place the jars in a dark cupboard for four to six weeks to let the magic work.
The finished product may be used:
- By the spoonful from the jar as you would take a cough syrup (never more than the recommended dosage for your age);
- Added to tea as a sweetener;
- As a spicy candy, if you choose to chew on the root pieces.
Once you open a jar, refrigerate it after each use.
The dried Inula Helenium chunks that you reserved for the winter may be steeped in water (20 to 30 minutes) for a healthy tea, but remember, it is bitter and needs sweetening.
Inula Helenium has not been approved by the US or Canadian health authorities for anything. It has, however, been used medicinally for lung conditions for centuries. Online herbal sites expound its virtues as antibacterial and antimicrobial and its benefits for digestion. If nothing else, it lifts my spirits to see Helen of Troy’s tears grow into beautiful flowers in my garden. If you make this recipe, let me know how it turned out!
*The common name in the literature is Elcampane, and the plant is from the Asteraceae family.
Photo by Angie Littlefield.
Angie Littlefield is an author, curator, educator, and editor. She has written three books about Canadian artist Tom Thomson, the most recent of which is Tom Thomson’s Fine Kettle of Friends. Her eclectic interests include curating art exhibits in Canada and Germany and working with children from Nunavut and Tristan da Cunha to produce their books. Her other books include Ilse Salberg: Weimar Photographer, Angelika Hoerle: Comet of Cologne Dadaists, and The Art of Dissent: Willy Fick. She co-created www.readingandremembrance.ca, a website with lesson packages for Ontario educators. Angie lives in Toronto, Canada.