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Native to eastern North America, lobelia has a long history of use by indigenous tribes for its wellness-supporting properties. Lobelia inflata is an herbaceous annual that likes to grow in compact soils. Lobelia leaf was popular with Eclectic herbalists at the turn of the century and has a tradition of use in external applications, smoking blends, and infusions as lobelia tea.
Lobelia is named after French Botanist Matthias de L’Obel (1583-1616). The plant is a member of the Lobeliaceae Family and is native to the Northeastern United States and Canada. There are over 350 different species of Lobelia spanning the globe. The herb native to the Northeastern US (Lobelia inflata) was also commonly referred to as Indian tobacco.
Lobelia is an annual, growing as low as 4 inches tall, characteristic of solitary path side plants in compacted soil, or up to 36 inches tall when in patches. You may first notice lobelia when you hear a faint rattle at your shins. These are the inflated seed pods for which L. inflata is named. The flowers are both white and pale blue-violet, split tubular five-petalled, and inconspicuous, a quarter inch at most, and positioned close to the stem and leaves. The stems are yellow-green to dark green, stiff, and hairy to varying degrees, the hairs not usually obvious. Mature plants are paniculately branched with the stems angled upwards near the top of the plant. Younger or smaller plants may be simple in arrangement, with a single stem only.
Harvest the entire above ground plant between the end of July and the end of October. If drying dry in shade and the product should be stored out of light, especially if powdered. (Hoffman, 1988; Hutchens, 1992) Care should be taken by harvesters to protect themselves from irritation to skin by excessive exposure or eyes by the slightest exposure. Some species of Lobelia have caused contact dermatitis by commercial harvesters.
Lobelia has been very involved in the history of American herbalism. Through its history the safety and appropriateness of using lobelia have been debated. Nineteenth-century eclectic healers and herbalists were sometimes called “lobelia doctors”, a derogatory term at the time, based on its enthusiastic use among them, and public debate about its safety.
New Englanders and Europeans used L. inflata for a long time before the 19th-century era of the eclectic physicians (Hutchens, 1992). North American lobelias were brought to Europe in the 16th century for medicinal purpose. The latinized name Lobelia was given by Linnaeus in honor of Matthias de Lobel, a botanist and private physician to King James I (“Lobelia”, 2004).
In the 19th-century medicinal use of lobelia was revived most notably by a charismatic American herbalist Samuel Thompson and it became a symbolic herb of the eclectics. For a half a century or so eclectic physicians, country doctors and herbalists promoted use of lobelia in a variety of ways. In many eclectic texts lobelia is described as a circulatory stimulant or depressant, depending on the dose, and nervous system stimulant or depressant, dependent on dose, with a myriad of specific indications related to the actions. During an era when purging and bloodletting, and mercury preparations were popular in conventional medicine, lobelia was a cathartic remedy used by the range of practitioners, from herbalists and country doctors to medical doctors.
Lobelia has a history of use supporting respiratory health. Lobelia contains several alkaloids that appear to provide some nicotine-like stimulation during smoking cessation.
The safest ways to begin to use lobelia are topically or in small amounts in combination with other herbs.
There are five main categories of applications:
Emetic, or as a purgative, historically
Relaxant to the airway
Subtle nervous system effects by small amounts in formula or topical uses
Lobelia inflata and a few other species which are endemic to North America have traditional use among many Native American tribes, including applications of leaves, flowers, seeds, and roots. Eclectic and modern uses reflect many of the traditional ones.