Some beneficial wild plants suffer from reputation: To nettle someone means to annoy them, and nettle plants are in fact covered with hollow micro-spikes that inject a skin irritant. But nettles are also an early-spring cooked green par excellence.
Other plants are victims of poor branding. Critical to the survival of monarch butterflies, milkweed is delicious when cooked. Jewelweed, native to wetlands, contains a sap which counteracts poison ivy, and its orange or yellow orchid-like flowers attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Yet both plants have names which define them as undesirable.
Even plants more worthy of the title “weed” often have redeeming qualities. The bane of many gardeners, invasive Japanese knotweed is illegal to intentionally plant or transport. However, it makes a decent rhubarb substitute when young, and its roots show real promise as a treatment for some cancers and possibly for Lyme disease as well. Although redroot pigweed is a nuisance weed in vegetable gardens, its leaves and seeds are nutritious and tasty.
But sometimes a name is intensely hard to swallow: One of our native wildflowers is an important medicinal plant, yet is called gagroot, vomitwort, or pokeweed. I’d like to know who was responsible for this marketing debacle. Its botanical name is Lobelia inflata, and some know it as Indian tobacco or blue lobelia. It’s a close relative of the bright-red cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis, which bursts into bloom along stream and pond banks in late summer.
Blue lobelia is not as showy as its crimson cousin, but is an attractive plant in its own right. Though it can reach a height of nearly one meter, it is typically between 20 and 40 cm tall. Its pale blue-violet blossoms give way to inflated seed capsules which remain on the stem. Flowers begin appearing in mid-summer, and continue to bloom until the first freeze. A self-seeding annual, sometimes acting as a biennial, it is easy to grow from seed.
At the time of European contact, blue lobelia was in widespread medicinal use by native peoples over the extent of its range, which is basically eastern North America except for northern Ontario and Quebec, and the far southern parts of the US. As its less-flattering nicknames suggest, this plant does induce vomiting at high doses, but even this feature is beneficial in the case of an accidental poisoning.
It was championed as the preferred cure for nearly all ailments by American herbalist Samuel Thompson (1769-1843), who managed to remain popular a long while before people finally got sick of his treatments. Over the centuries, Lobelia inflata has also been used to promote sweating, as an antispasmodic, as an aid in smoking cessation, and many other things. It is perhaps best known for its ability to help relieve the symptoms of asthma.
This is the part of the program where I’m required to say “It is essential to consult your health-care provider before using lobelia, and to only use it under the supervision of an experienced herbalist.” Except this time I mean it. Lobelia inflata is a potent and effective medicine, but like many important drugs such as insulin and digitalis, is toxic in moderate to large amounts. Misjudging the dosage could lead to convulsions, coma or death.
One of Indian tobacco’s key constituents, lobeline, apparently accounts for the herb’s ability to relax bronchial tubes, open airways, and stimulate breathing. It has been traditionally smoked in small amounts, although today it is also available as a tincture or in capsule form. Occasionally it is combined with other herbs and used as a chest or sinus rub.
Structurally, lobeline does not resemble nicotine, though it does affect the body in similar ways, which might account for its history in helping people kick the tobacco habit. Lobeline may in fact turn out to be a treatment for stimulant abuse. Articles in the medical journals Biochemical Pharmacology (Jan. 2002) and Neurochemical Research (Nov. 2006) indicate that lobeline alters the way stimulants act on the brain’s “reward center.” In the words of the authors, lobeline disrupts “…the fundamental mechanisms of dopamine storage and release.”
To be more widely accepted, I think this amazing plant just needs a public-relations makeover.
Former Cornell Cooperative Extension Educator Paul Hetzler may have garnered an unflattering nickname or two along the way.