Lobelia (Lobelia inflata)
Indian tobacco, Puke Weed, Asthma Weed, Gagroot, Vomitwort, Bladderpod, Ban Bian Lian, (TCM), Wild Tobacco, Emetic Herb, Vomitroot
About This Plant
Lobelia is typically an annual, though sometimes biennial, herbaceous plant of the Campanulaceae family. It is more or less an erect, somewhat weedy plant that grows in meadows, abandoned fields, along roadsides and in the waste places in open woods such as powerline clearances. It prefers areas with a history of disturbances. When growing in the compacted soils along solitary paths it will stay small, about six inches tall, but when growing in open patches can reach three feet tall and about a foot wide. It typically grows in dry soils. Lobelia is a plant with a notorious reputation and a rich, historical past.
The tiny flowers of Lobelia are about ⅓” long, positioned close to the stem and leaves and are a light blue-violet, light purple, or white in color. The flowers have a cleft upper lip consisting of two small lobes and a cleft lower lip consisting of three lobes that are somewhat larger. The interior is primarily white with two small yellow patches and tufts of fine white hair on the lower interior. The flowers usually appear from mid-Summer through the Fall with a few flowers in bloom at the same time.They have no noticeable scent and the nectar of the flowers attract small bees.
The leaves of Lobelia are usually about two and a half inches long, one inch across, ovate, alternately arranged and slightly serrated. The leaves become smaller as they ascend the stems. Their upper surface is largely hairless while the lower surface has a few hairs along the major veins. The angular stems are covered in tiny, bristly white hairs. The stems are unbranched, or branched occasionally in the upper half. The hairs are less abundant on the upper stems. The central stem terminates in a spike-like raceme, or cluster, of flowers that extends to about one-half the length of the plant. The acrid foliage is highly toxic and is avoided by mammalian herbivores.
Lobelia seeds are ⅓” long within a capsule that is completely enclosed by the persistent green calyx. There are several ribs along the sides of the calyx. The seed capsule is divided into two cells and each cell contains numerous tiny seeds. The seeds stain paper with a grease. The seed pods are inflated and will give a faint rattle when brushed by your shins as you walk by them. The seeds are of little interest to birds. The root system consists of a taproot that is toxic and can be fatal if eaten.
Lobelia has long been used as a medicinal plant – as an entheogen and emetic and as a respiratory aid. Native Americans used Lobelia for respiratory and muscle disorders, as a purgative, and as a ceremonial medicine. The leaves were chewed and smoked. Although used medicinally, consuming Lobelia causes adverse effects which may include sweating, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, rapid heartbeat, mental confusion, convulsions, hypothermia, coma, or possibly death. The foliage was burned by the Cherokee as a natural insecticide to smoke out gnats.
Lobelia contains multiple alkaloid compounds throughout the entire plant with the highest concentrations being in the seeds. Lobelia has a similar effect on the nervous system as nicotine and has been shown to be a partial nicotine agonist with effects on the central nervous system, neuromuscular system, and peripheral circulation. It is a respiratory stimulant, activating the carotid and aortic body chemoreceptors.
Lobelia was known to the Penobscot people and was widely used in New England long before the time when Samuel Thomson was credited with its discovery. Thomson was a charismatic American herbalist and Lobelia became a symbolic herb of the Eclectic school of herbalism. The Eclectic texts describe it as a circulatory stimulant or depressant, depending on dose, and a nervous system stimulant or depressant, dependent on dose. When used in combination with other herbs, it was thought to make the patient more receptive to the remedy. Some say it acts as a “thinking” agent that goes to whatever part of the body is ailing and addresses it, often in conjunction with other herbs. In higher doses it is a depressant; in smaller doses a stimulant. Overdose can result in dry mouth, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain or diarrhea, burning upon urination, anxiety, dizziness or headache, chills and/or sweating, respiratory difficulty, bradycardia, cardiac arrhythmias, drowsiness, muscle twitching, and or hyperventilation.
The plant is named after the botanist Matthias de Lobel, a native of Lille who died in London in 1616. He was the private physician to King James. There are more than 350 species of Lobelia found worldwide.
Lobelia is on the United Plant Savers “To Watch” list. They state that a very limited wild harvest is permissible when no other alternatives will do and commonsense wildcrafting procedures are observed, such as leaving some healthy specimens to resow and scattering the seeds if mature. Or, grow your own Lobelia to ensure an ethical and sustainable source. Lobelia has been regulated in some countries. It is undefined in the U.S. as a food ingredient. The FDA specifically forbids labeling Lobelia products for smoking cessation.
Lobelia can be grown from cuttings or from seed. Seeds can be sown in containers in mid-Spring or mid-Fall. The seeds are very tiny, so using finely sifted soil will work best for germination and early growth. Seeds should be top-sown and kept moist. Germination should take place in about two weeks.
Seedlings can be transplanted when they are about two to three inches tall. Space plants six to eight inches apart.
Lobelia will grow in all kinds of soils, including heavy clay soils or rocky soils. While poor soil is tolerated, it will stunt the growth of the plants somewhat. Lobelia will grow in semi-shade to full sun. It prefers moist soil. Irrigate it twice weekly if the summers are dry. Keep patches well weeded. Pests should not be a problem.
Lobelia typically acts as an annual and readily self-sows from its multitude of tiny seeds. The whole plant is harvested when the lower fruits are ripe, usually between the end of July and the end of October. Care should be taken by harvesters to protect themselves from irritation to the skin from excessive exposure or to the eyes by the slightest exposure. It can cause contact dermatitis.
The seed cases of Lobelia are small, brown, dehiscent, and papery. Seeds ripen from August to September. Protect your skin and eyes from exposure when harvesting from this plant.
- The Lobelia plant is toxic, and while used medicinally, should only be done so under the supervision of a qualified practitioner.
All parts of the Lobelia plant are toxic and should not be used for culinary purposes.
Lobelia was commonly used by Native Americans for respiratory and muscle disorders, as a purgative, and as a ceremonial medicine. The leaves were commonly the plant part used and they were chewed or smoked. This plant should be used with great caution and only under the supervision of a qualified practitioner, as all parts of the plant are toxic and can cause adverse effects such as sweating, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, rapid heartbeat, mental confusion, convulsions, hypothermia, coma and even death. Excessive use of this plant, even when under the care of a qualified profession, is discouraged. It should be avoided with high blood pressure, heart disease, and seizure disorders. It should not be used if pregnant or breastfeeding.
An alkaloid in Lobelia is believed to be helpful for people giving up smoking tobacco and therefore Lobelia is sometimes found in smoking mixes. It is said to mimic the effects of nicotine. It is also used in small amounts or as a minor ingredient in formulas, believing it helps make the body more accepting of the herbal remedy. Alkaloids in the leaves help stimulate the removal of phlegm from the respiratory tract at lower doses. It has traditionally been used in cases of asthma, bronchitis, upper respiratory tract infection, pneumonia, and emphysema. At low doses, it stimulates the respiratory center of the brain, producing stronger and deeper breathing. Higher doses act as a depressant to the autonomic nervous system. Even higher doses result in paralysis of muscular action and can lead to respiratory failure.
Externally, Lobelia has been used to assist in the treatment of rheumatism, tennis elbow, whiplash injuries, boils, sprains, bruises, or other skin diseases.
Lobelia is native to eastern North America, from southeastern Canada south to Alabama and west to Kansas.