Late summer is lobelia season, and the Adirondacks are a great place to find these beautiful flowers, the most stunning of which is the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Most lobelias, however, are not red; they are various shades of blue. Here in New York we have seven species of lobelia (including cardinal flower), and today I want to introduce you to Lobelia inflata, commonly known as Indian tobacco.
I encountered Indian tobacco for the first time this summer. I was busy photographing some ladies tresses when I saw this lovely pale blue flower blooming nearby. I took a couple photos to identify later, and promptly returned to the orchids. When I looked at the photos the next day, I knew I had a lobelia, but was unsure which kind. As soon as I knew which species it was, I decided I needed to learn more. After all, a plant with the name “Indian tobacco” must surely have an interesting history. Into herbals and books on ethnobotany I delved.
As it turns out, Indian tobacco has a rather long and well-documented history of medicinal uses among many of our native peoples. The most common uses involved remedies for a variety of respiratory ailments, such as asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia and coughs. I was surprised to learn that the plant was smoked to treat asthma. Coltsfoot is another plant that has traditionally been smoked for asthma and other bronchial disturbances. Is it just me, or does this seem counterintuitive? I mean, if one is having difficulty breathing, does it make sense to inhale smoke for a treatment? This is another example of “things that make you say ‘hm’.”
The plant was probably named “tobacco” because when broken it produces a scent similar to tobacco, and apparently it tastes like tobacco, too. Not having ever used tobacco, or sampled this lobelia, I can neither confirm nor deny these statements. However, the active chemical ingredient in the plant is lobeline, which has similar effects on the body as nicotine. In fact, some folks believed Indian tobacco could be used to help people quit smoking. Several products containing lobeline used to be available for just this purpose, but in 1993 the FDA determined that they were ineffective (the products, not the FDA) and prohibited their sale.
More recent studies, however, suggest that lobeline might be helpful in the treatment of persons with drug addictions. Medicinally, this is a plant to watch.
Many lobelias grow in damp, if not down right wet, conditions, but not Indian tobacco. This species prefers dry sites and is often found growing along roadsides. It’s actually a fairly common plant, most likely overlooked because its small flowers (one-quarter inch long) are not all that showy at a distance. Up close, however, they are quite attractive, with three petals pointing downward, and two sticking up, kind of like little blue ears above a wide blue beard.
When the seedpods develop, the reason for the species name inflata becomes apparent: they look like inflated bladders. In fact, for novice botanists this might be one of the best identifying traits to look for when trying to ID this plant.
As the summer draws out and the cicadas sing, it’s time to seek out the lobelias. Walk along roadsides, walk along lake shores. Look for pale blue or bright red flowers, with three petals hanging downward, and two pointing up. They are funny-looking flowers, but delightful to find.