Herbal Nerd Society Exclusive Article

There are many species of Lobelia, in the neighborhood of 300, to be more precise. Herbalists, however, tend to work with only two of those species; L. inflata is by far the most popular in North America and L. chinensis the most popular in Asia and among practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Lobelia inflata is commonly used by modern herbalists as an antispasmodic herb. Most often, it’s used in formulation with other antispasmodics, in part because it’s hard to take as a single and in part because L. inflata works well with others.

Modern herbalists, like their elders, recognize L. inflata’s ability to help the formula’s energy go to the place of imbalance in the body. While we may not think about using L. inflata as a targeting herb as the Thomsonian’s did or as Traditional Chinese Medicine pratitioners might, often that is exactly what L. inflata is doing in our formulas. Lobelia inflata is the kind of medicine that just takes charge, aiming to bring the whole system into balance in whatever way makes most sense.

The challenge we have with L. inflata is that it can work in ways we hadn’t predicted, causing vomiting at one dose today and another tomorrow, working differently from one person to the next, and occasionally shifting or correcting problems we hadn’t yet recognized. (Wood)

What distinguishes Lobelia inflata from the others?

Lobelia inflata is taller and weedier than her cousin, L. chinensis. She’s also a more potent emetic, meaning if you take too much of her she’ll induce vomiting…and too much can be as few as three drops L. inflata tincture! By contrast, L. chinensis is commonly offered in tea, pill, or decoction form at a rough rate of 15-30 g (roughly 1/2-1 oz). Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners consider L. chinensis, also known as Ban Bian Lian, to be non-toxic. L. inflata is not commonly used by TCM practitioners, but the US FDA considers it a potentially poisonous plant.

Lobelia inflata, commonly called Indian Tobacco, has been used in North America for centuries as a potent healing agent. They used it much as later North American healers of European descent used it, as a diaphoretic, emetic, and an expectorant. Native American healers used other species of Lobelia, such as L. spicata and L. cardinalis, as well. Lobelia inflata, with its inflated seedpods which puffed up just when the time was right to harvest them, became the favorite of the early American doctors, including the Thomsonians, to whom we today give thanks for our modern use of this healing herb. (King)

Since L. inflata’s taste is particularly strong, and often described as vile, herbalists most often infused it into alcohol as a tincture or dry it to grind and encapsulate it rather than use it in tea or as a decoction. Unlike L. chinensis, which is described as sweet and pungent, L. inflata’s taste is generally bitter, biting, and prickling. Lobelia inflata is one of the herbs, like echinicea, that creates a tingly sensation in the mouth.

Grow a Little Lobelia

If you’ve got moist to slightly dry soil with a bit of loam in it, full to partial shade, and a moist climate, Lobelia inflata may well be happy to grow in your space. Lobelia inflata’s favorite spaces are along stream and pond edges where their roots will easily stay damp, and in the weedy or marginal areas. Think of the diffusive nature of L. inflata’s medicine, including her mild diuretic and thus drying action, when you’re looking for a place to plant her and you’ll likely choose wisely. Aim to seed in the fall, as that’s when L. inflata would naturally sow her seeds.

Lobelia inflata is a light-dependent germinator, so plan to spread seeds in a place where they’ll stay moist but not sodden and they’ll get full-sun at least until they sprout. Lobelia inflata likes to overwinter and then flower the following spring. Her native range is east of the Mississippi in North America, spanning zones 3-8, so she can handle a hard freeze in the winter and intense, damp heat in the summer. Folks in the Pacific Northwest have reported general success in cultivating L. inflata, particularly when sown in the fall so that the plants have plenty of opportunity to establish before the summer’s drought arrives. (United Plant Savers) Lobelia inflata can withstand some drought so long as her taproots have had a chance to set well.

Lobelia inflata grows to around 2.5-3 feet in height (76-91 cm). It’s flowers are small and white, giving way to seed pods that puff or inflate as their compliment of tiny seeds mature. Herbalists harvest the seed pods and aerial parts when the pods have begun to inflate to use as medicine.

Bees are reputed to like the nectar of L. inflata. Deer, however, prefer to avoid L. inflata, making this a terrific addition to a deer-proof garden.