I just spent at least 50 years looking for a plant that doesn't exist. I really enjoy learning the history of plants, especially those that were part of my childhood. I followed my Aunt Bett all over the mountains of southeast Kentucky searching for plants that she used in making her home remedies. From her I learned a lot of good information along with a lot of history and legends. I also learned some things that have caused me grief over the years. Horseweed was one of them.
I look upon those things I learned at the knees of the little old ladies in my life as treasures, but I had the hardest time with the language barrier. Take for instance the tall plant that Aunt Bett introduced me to; she called it horseweed because she made a salve from it that folks used to treat skin blemishes, cuts, and irritated areas on horses and often on cattle. Every barn in the mountains must have had some of Aunt Bett's horseweed salve stacked up in little round tin containers near the stalls.
When I lived and worked in Louisville, I had a nice corner lot where I started the first garden of my own. I was anxious to find plants to match those I remembered. I went to a nursery and asked for horseweed, no one had heard of it. I described it as a tall plant that looked much like a small sunflower, but still no one had ever heard of horseweed. I moved to western Kentucky, and started my garden with the same plan in mind, plants that I had known in the mountains. Still no horseweed.
I retired from teaching a couple of years ago, and there was a small nursery very near the entrance to our school campus. It was a tradition for me to stop there every May on the last day of school. I always bought one new thing for my garden; it was a prize for having ended another school year with body and mind reasonably intact. I usually purchased perennials that I recognized from my childhood, or perhaps a couple of tomato plants, maybe an annual that seemed new to me. Rarely did I ever spend very much money, but it was the one new thing that I always added to my garden.
On the last day of my last year of teaching, I walked into the nursery and there it was: horseweed! It was tall and it was almost in bud, and I recognized that foliage immediately. "Oh," I said to the lady that I chatted with every May, "where did you get the horseweed? I have been looking for horseweed for years, and thought maybe it wouldn't grow well in this area." She looked at me just like my students did when I gave a pop quiz. "I don't have horseweed," she said, "I don't even know what horseweed is."
Inula helenium, most commonly known as elecampane, or wild sunflower, is a perennial herb, three to six feet tall, that has a stout branched stem that rises from a basal rosette of large pointed leaves. The leaves can be about a foot long and about 3 or 5 inches across. Smaller leaves grow upward along the stem, seeming to clasp it. The foliage has velvety undersides, and the blooms, bright yellow flowerheads, are at least 4 inches across and look very much like small sunflowers. It blooms in July through September, just as I remembered. The root is large, heavy and long, yellow on the outside, white within, and gives off a strong odor of violets. It's hard to forget a plant like that, especially since I gathered it near the end of every summer for so many years. I told the nursery lady a little about it, but she still didn't quite get the horseweed connection. I guess she was not into herbal home remedies, or maybe she didn't know horses had skin problems.
Wild sunflower, (aka horseweed), entered folk medicine with the ancient Greeks and Romans who used it in cold remedies. As late as the 19th century the roots were boiled in sugar water to make cough drops and asthma lozenges. Aunt Bett and I also made cough drops from the boiled root sugar water and when it hardened on waxed paper that covered a long platter, I got to crack the solid sheet of candy into small pieces and put them in tins. I coughed a lot, and sure enough, Aunt Bett told me I might as well sample as much as I needed to cure my coughing condition. It worked every time, but I had to keep taking more and more because I sure did have an incurable cough. Truth was, she always flavored the cough drops with honey or cinnamon if she had either of them, and they were right up there with chocolate in my estimation.
It was also thought to be good for the stomach, so if the coughing didn't always work, I could have a tummy ache. Aunt Bett kept me well supplied, just in case. At another time in history, it was the main herbal ingredient in a medieval digestive wine that was commonly referred to as "drink of Paul", an allusion to St. Paul's biblical command to "use a little wine for thy stomach's sake."
Although its large radiant yellow blossoms make elecampane a strikingly beautiful garden flower, it seems likely that the European settlers of North America introduced the plant neither for their asthma nor for their stomach's sake, but because if its widely held reputation as an effective remedy for skin diseases on sheep and horses. The veterinary use is the origin of elecampane's other common names, scabwort and horseheal. Today's research indicates that the root is probably an antispasmodic and expectorant. It does contain a substance that researchers also think may prove to be an antiseptic or antibiotic.
I guess I am going to have to rely on my memories for horseweed, it simply does not survive here in the hot dry summers of western Kentucky. I kept it well the first year, but last summer it put up a really brave front all the way through June, then the temperatures and the drought took it away before it even bloomed. It did not even make an appearance this past summer. I should have remembered that we found it in damp pastures and fields, and often beside a mountain stream. I have not seen it in any of our local nurseries since that last day of school nearly three years ago. I would not buy it again, because as much as I loved it, I couldn't bear to plant it where it cannot grow. To me that would be like caging one of our visiting finches or robins, or even a hummingbird.
So I have to live without horseweed in my life, and it is probably a good thing since for the life of me I could never call it by its given name. But someday, when I am back in the mountains, I am going to gather a few roots and boil them up in sugar water and honey. I won't even have to wait for a coughing spell, I will eat horseweed candy as often as I want. And I will call it whatever I like.
Photos in this article are from Plant Files.
All information is from family writings.