A couple of years ago I discovered this plant at VanDusen Gardens. It was tucked way in the back west and I was thoroughly charmed by the brown and yellow variations in the blossom heads. I finally figured out that it is elecampane, or Inula helenium. It was one of the featured flowers at VanDusen Gardens last week and so I was able to identify it. They have planted a stand of it near the front entrance along with a bunch of other plants that bees love.
In looking for information on elecampane I discovered a website from the Pagan Rights Coalition that gives very detailed information on the medicinal benefits of this plant. Elecampane has been used to treat skin problems in farm animals, and bronchial, heart, and blood sugar ailments in humans.
The name elecampane comes from the belief that Helen of Troy carried a bouquet of the flowers when she was kidnapped by Paris. Some of the other names such as scabwort and horseheal come from its treatment of skin diseases in sheep and horses. Some other olde worlde names include elf wort, elf dock, velvet dock and wild sunflower.
Since it is in the sunflower family, one might expect that the leaves and flower heads can be used as a yellow-green dye. I have a pot of flower heads on the boil right now. A few plants ended up in the MOP garden as a wee gifty from the fairies. We don't know where they came from. Since the bees love them, I collected flower heads that were fading and wilting and left the more robust heads as a source of nectar and pollen. Some sources suggest that the roots were used in traditional Scottish dyes, perhaps as a mordant to be used with "blaeberries." Another source, digherbs.com cites using the roots as a dye with "whortleberries" and ash. I will have to experiment with that after we've collected some seeds. The plants seem to thrive here, so if you have a large garden, it would be worth trying to grow these. Nicholson's Herb Farm has a good blog post on propagation tips for Inula helenium. In the mean time, please look for the flowers at VanDusen Gardens or the MOP and have fun watching the bees!