Praised and revered by some and feared and despised by others, this plant has quite the history.
In fact the history of this plant’s use and the controversy surrounding it, is what intrigued and drew me into writing this thesis on it.
Lobelia was very popular with the Native Americans (commonly referred to as Indians). They ranked it high in their materia medica, and set such store by it that it was an article of trade among them. Several tribes reported to have used it are the Penobscot, Cherokee, Iroquois, Shoshone and Crow. The Cherokee mashed the roots of lobelia and used them as a poultice for body aches. The Iroquois also used the root, to treat venereal diseases, ulcers, and leg sores. The Crow used the plant in religious ceremonies.
The Indians used lobelia inflata in several ways and for a wide range of complaints. They valued its diaphoretic properties ranking it high in their materia medica as a perspiration inducer.As an expectorant, lobelia was considered an acceptable runner-up to extract of gumwood, which was their favored expectorant.The Indians certainly didn’t miss the most famous property of lobelia, that of an emetic. They used the “puke weed” to induce vomiting as a therapeutic modality. To them it was no big deal; they took emetics as frequently and casually as white folk take a laxative. The Shoshones are one tribe known to have used lobelia tea as an emetic.Lobelia was even used as a relaxant, especially for squaws during labor. There was a difference of opinion among them though; whether lobelia or blueberry tea was the more efficient relaxant. The antispasmodic tea was made from the root and said “to be the great medicine that squaws use at the birth of their children.” In brief, recorded history shows that the Indians knew and utilized the emetic, diaphoretic, expectorant, relaxant and antispasmodic properties of the herb, known today as lobelia inflata.
Prepared as an infusion they used it for asthma and catarrh, for relief from chest pains, as a tonic after influenza, and as a remedy for intestinal worms and venereal disease. For external use they smashed the leaves and applied it as a poultice to the side of the neck to treat an abscess. The leaves were rubbed on sores, aches, stiff necks, and chapped places. The common names, Indian tobacco and wild tobacco give reference to yet another way the Indians used lobelia medicinally, perhaps their favorite; smoking. They smoked the leaves for sore throats, coughs, asthma, bronchitis and other lung ailments.
Lobelia inflata was not the only Lobelia used by the Indians. Great Blue Lobelia (L. siphilitica) and Cardinal flower (L. cardinalis) were used as well leading to some confusion since then concerning the different species and their use by the Indians. Some Herbals state that the Indians used the different lobelia species; L. inflata, L. siphilitica and L. cardinalis interchangeably for the same purposes.After a closer look at the various pieces of information and attempting to piece it together I disagree at least in part. Part of the confusion is very likely due to the fact that plants in the same family do often share medicinal properties and uses and lobelia is no exception.References to uses of the root may well be referring to Blue Lobelia (L. siphilitica) or Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) rather than Lobelia inflata. Many old herbals declare that the root of L. inflata was never used in medicine but these are certainly no authority on Indian use of lobelia as many of them deny that the Indians ever used it (L. inflata) for medicine.
The great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) was used by the Iroquois in the North as a remedy for syphilis. Success with using lobelia as a vermifuge led to experiments with it for venereal disease. Sir William Johnson, superintendent of Indian affairs in North America from 1756 to 1774 and a friend of the Iroquois, purchased samples of the great blue lobelia, known as “the Indian’s secret cure for syphilis”, from the Native Americans and sent it to Europe. He introduced it as a drug of great repute in fighting that disease. European physicians failed to affect a cure with it and cast it aside. Nevertheless, the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, believing it justified the Indian representation, labeled the plant Lobelia Syphilitica. The reason for the failure in Europe may have been that the Indians always used lobelia in conjunction with other herbs with which it was decocted, such as cherry bark.Lobelia combined with New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus fendleri) dried and ground to a powder was used to dust syphilitic sores.
Lobelia syphiltica was also used as a tonic by the Indians after an influenza attack.
Cardinal flower (L. cardinalis) was used as an emetic and an expectorant just like lobelia inflata and the root by the Cherokee Indians in the South as a cure for syphilis. But it was never valued as highly as the more potent Indian Tobacco (L. inflata).
The use of Lobelia as a medicinal plant did not end with the Indians, the white man found it worked in healing their diseases as well as it did for the natives. As the white man used lobelia, he gave it various English names some referring to it’s emetic properties; puke weed, emetic herb, emetic weed, gag root, vomit wort; and still others referring to Indian use, wild tobacco, Indian tobacco; what it was good for, asthma weed, eyebright; and the shape of the seed pod, bladderpod.
I enjoyed the discussion on the common names that I found in King’s American Dispensatory, (1898) so well that I decided to quote most of it here. “The earliest botanists did not use a common name for lobelia, and it was not until 1810 that we find the first popular name – Bladder-pod – given it by Aiton. Following this came Inflated lobelia and Bladder-pod lobelia for obvious reasons. So much for names suggested by the plant itself. When it came to be used in medicine a new set of popular names having reference to its properties, were applied. Thomson and Cutler called it Emetic weed and Emetic herb. These names suggested those to follow – Puke weed, Vomit weed, and Gag root. Although the term gag root was employed, the root was never used in medicine, statements to the contrary notwithstanding. One of its very old names is Eye-bright – a name properly belonging to Euphrasia officinalis, and, from its use as an anti-asthmatic, some writers have referred to it as Asthma weed.” As you can see, this plant has some very interesting names and as we continue you will realize it has an even more interesting history.
No history of lobelia, short or lengthy, is complete without a short history of the man who made lobelia famous. The son of a poor and illiterate farmer from Alstead, New Hampshire, Samuel Thomson [1769-1843], an unorthodox herbal practitioner, brought lobelia into widespread use as a medicinal agent. Lobelia along with steam baths was the mainstay of his patent medicine. He said of lobelia “the Emetic herb . . . is the most important article I make use of in my practice.”
Though there are records of lobelia being used in folk medicine by the people of New England before he was born, Samuel Thomson discovered its emetic properties on his own while yet a child. Being naturally very curious about plants, at the age of four, he noticed lobelia and wanting to know more about this “new” plant picked and chewed some of the pods. In his own words “The taste and operation produced was so remarkable that I never forgot it.” After this he would often induce other boys to chew it, merely in sport, to see them vomit.
Since he had never observed any bad effects produced by lobelia, his simple experiments eventually led him to the discovery of the value of it in disease.
“The herb which I had first discovered when four years old, I had often met with; but it had never occurred to me that it was of any value medicinally, until about this time [1791-1794], when mowing in a field with a number of men one day, I cut a sprig of it, and gave it to the man next to me, who ate it; when we got to the end of the piece, which was about six rods, he said he believed what I had given him would kill him, for he never felt this way before. I looked at him and saw that he was in a most profuse perspiration, being as wet all over as he could be; he trembled very much, and there was no more color in him than a corpse. I told him to go to the spring and drink some water; he attempted to go and got as far as the wall, but was unable to get over it, and laid down on the ground and vomited several times. He said he thought he threw off his stomach two quarts. I then helped him into the house, and in about two hours he ate a very hearty dinner and in the afternoon was able to do a good half day’s labor. He afterwards told me that he never had anything do him so much good in his life; his appetite was remarkably good, and he felt much better than he had felt for a long time.” Later while recounting this experience Thomson wrote “This circumstance gave me the first idea of the medicinal virtues of this valuable plant; which I have since found, by twenty year’s experience, (in which time I have made use of it in every disease I have met with, to great advantage), to be a discovery of the greatest importance.”
When the doctors could do nothing for his daughter who was sorely afflicted with the “canker-rash” or his wife who nearly died after giving birth, Thomson cured them using steam baths and herbs by following his own instincts and the little knowledge he had. As neighbors learned of his success with his family and other neighbors they began to call for Thomson rather than the regular doctor. Being unable to care for both his farm and the many sick folks who called on him for help he made the big decision to quit farming and devote his life to the betterment of mankind.
Thomson’s drastically simple approach to medicine was not without opposition though. Why? you may ask. And I must say for the most part for two very simple reasons. The first being that with his simple remedies, including lobelia, people were restored to health who had been declared hopeless cases by their doctors proving his method of treatment and his remedies better than theirs. Thomson did not even have a grade school education, and certainly no medical degree, that he should affect a cure when they could not was too difficult a pill to swallow. Secondly, Thomson was quite vocal as to what he thought of the fashionable modes of practice at the time, such as bloodletting and giving mercury and other metals. In return they circulated all kinds of false and ridiculous reports about him and his practice to destroy his credibility. Thomson went on to patent his form of medicine of which lobelia was the No. 1 remedy, and form the Friendly Botanic Society. Those who purchased rights to the use of his medicine became members of this society.
I must admit my short history of Samuel Thomson, has become rather long of which I should feel I must apologize but for the fact that Thomson did so much good by way of lobelia that it is only fair that a portion of his life’s story should be included along with the story of lobelia. If you wish to read more of this great man read his autobiography for yourself or J.U. Lloyd’s account “Life and Medical Discoveries of Samuel Thomson”, I am sure you will find it very interesting.
Lest I should fail to even mention the name of the one who first wrote about lobelia I will tell you here. The introduction of lobelia into medical practice is at least in part due to Dr. Manasseh Cutler. Some unwilling to credit Thomson with discovering it and bringing it into practice have ascribed the whole honor to Cutler. Cutler was the first to publish its use in his “Account of Indigenous Vegetables”printed in 1785 after having proved it effective in giving more relief from asthma than any other remedy. Very likely he learned this use from Thomson who practiced near his home in Massachusetts.
Thankfully the use of lobelia did not die with Samuel Thomson, if it had; I fear I would know nothing of this wonder working herb. The newer more “respectable” medical systems of Eclecticism and Homeopathy, though much more sophisticated than Thomsonian Medicine did not frown on lobelia. Dr. King made this statement “Few drugs are more favored among Eclectic physicians than lobelia” They even utilized some of the Thomsonian remedies such as the antispasmodic tincture of lobelia, skunk cabbage and capsicum; and No. 6 which was comprised of lobelia, myrrh and capsicum. Not content to use lobelia only in the way Thomson did, after extended and persistent experimentation they came up with what they considered a nearly perfect fluid preparation for hypodermic use. To their delight they found Subculoid lobelia as they called it, had an uplifting action with very little of a nauseating and emetic effect. Homeopathy founded by Samuel Hahnemann and brought to the United States by Dr. Hans B. Gram recorded Lobelia inflata as a proven remedy in their first volume published in the U.S.
Following in Thomson’s footsteps, Jethro Kloss (1863-1946) and Dr. Christopher (1909-1983) used and valued lobelia as a potentially “miracle working” herb. Both gave more space to lobelia than any other single herb in their herbals “Back to Eden” and “School of Natural Healing” respectively. Jethro Kloss quoted others extensively in praise of lobelia including Drs. Thomson, Scudder, Lyle, Greer, Stephens, Butler, Nowell, and Hool. He himself wrote “Lobelia is one of the most extensively used herbs and is used chiefly as an emetic or in pulmonary complaints such as bronchitis, croup, whooping cough, asthma, etc., antispasmodic, stimulant.” Dr. Christopher fondly referred to it as the “thinking herb” since it works as a catalyst (to enhance or direct action) helping other herbs do their job and seems to know which way it should go in the body and what results it should effect.
I have spent considerable time discussing those who used lobelia especially Samuel Thomson but very little as to how they used it and for what purposes. The list of ailments it has been found useful in is quite long. Here is a list arranged alphabetically taken from the “School of Natural Healing” by Dr. Christopher. “Medicinal uses: Abscesses, adynamia (weakness), angina pectoris (heart excitability), asthma, blood poisoning, blood circulation problems, boils, bronchial problems, bruises, catarrh, chicken pox, cold sweats, colds, colic, congestion, constipation, convulsions, cough, cramps, croup, digestive disturbances (nervous dyspepsia, acute indigestion, etc.), drowning, dyspnea, diphtheria, earache, eczema, epilepsy, fainting, febrile troubles (fevers), felons, female problems, heart weakness, hepatitis, hydrophobia (mad dog bites), hysteria, inflammations, insect stings and bites, laryngitis, measles, meningitis, nephritis, nervousness, palpitation, peritonitis, periostitis, phrenitis, pleurisy, pneumonia, poison ivy, poison oak, rheumatism, ringworm, scarlet fever, smallpox, spasms (spine, muscles, chest, or genital organs), sprains, stomach irritation (small doses), tetanus (lock jaw), vomiting (small doses), whooping cough, and zymotic diseases.” This is Dr. Christopher’s list but I have found most if not all of these uses in many herbals written by various authors. Not many herbs have this long a list of ailments beneficially affected by them.
Let’s go into a little more of the details on lobelia, one of the most widely used herbs in nineteenth-century America with its use extending to the present time. The dried tops and leaves of Indian Tobacco were listed in official drug botanicals from 1820 to 1936, and appeared in the National Formulary until 1960. “The Favorite Medical Receipt Book and Home Doctor” published in 1903 has this to say in regards to lobelia “Exceedingly valuable in asthma, croup, whooping cough and pulmonary diseases generally. The leaves, seeds and inflated capsules may be given in the form of powders or tincture. A dose of the powder is 1-5 grains; of the tincture, 10 to 20 drops. In asthma the dose should be repeated in about half an hour if the paroxysm continues. For croup, teaspoonful doses of the tincture are recommended to be taken in connection with warm drinks of some simple herb tea until vomiting occurs.”
Those who used lobelia found that lobelia rapidly influences all parts of the body, being of a highly diffusive nature. Alone, lobelia can accomplish little, but given with other herbs is exceedingly beneficial. The authors of the “Model Botanic Guide to Health”, quoting Thomson, wrote “The effects of lobelia may be compared to a fire made of shavings, which will soon go out unless other fuel be added; cayenne therefore, may be said to keep alive the blaze which the lobelia has kindled.”Dr. Christopher bore testimony to his own and many other herbal doctors’ practical experience, by stating “It is a good rule to always give a stimulant before administering lobelia, or to combine a stimulant with it.” More specific rules of use are “When used as a relaxant, do not combine with cayenne or goldenseal, but with a more diffusive agent such as ginger. When used as an emetic, lobelia should be preceded with a stimulant tea such as peppermint or cayenne.” –“School of Natural Healing”
As it is a catalyst herb helping other herbs work better it has been combined with a large assortment of herbs for a variety of conditions. An example from “Back to Eden”, “the acid tincture can be added to horehound, hyssop, sage or other teas, or may be added to the composition tea in doses of a teaspoonful to a cupful of the herb tea for cough, asthma, colds, etc.” Pleurisy root, a specific remedy for pleurisy, was bettered with the addition of lobelia because of its relaxing properties.
Throughout history it’s most common use certainly has been as an antispasmodic and expectorant in treating asthma and other disorders pertaining to the lungs such as coughs, bronchitis, whooping cough, pneumonia, croup, etc. Dr. King, an eclectic, wrote “For this class of diseases no remedy is more highly valued by physicians of our school” A specific for the lungs both internally to calm spasms and open passages, and as an emetic to throw out mucous obstruction, rapidly clearing the air passages of the lungs of sticky or adhesive foreign matter. I like the way the authors of “The Model Botanic Guide to Health” put it “There is no other medicine that is half so effective as lobelia in removing the tough, hard, and ropy phlegm from asthmatic and consumptive persons.”
Lobelia is not limited to internal use. The authors of “The Medicines of Nature” wrote, “We have also used the acid tincture as an external application, rubbing it between the shoulders and on the chest in asthma and have found it most helpful. Dr. H. Nowell uses this regularly in this manner and has had some surprising results in cases where the breathing has been most difficult.”
Americans continue to use lobelia in the 21’st century to treat asthma and other respiratory problems with good results. Richo Cech, owner of Horizon Herbs says “Lobelia is of irreplaceable assistance in addressing chronic, debilitating cough and other lung-related problems such as asthma and emphysema.”Many former asthma suffers wholeheartedly agree.
I must tell you a few stories to illustrate. A Dr. Butler after suffering for ten years from asthma and trying a variety of remedies with little results had this to say after using lobelia. “The last time I had an attack it was the worst I ever experienced. It continued for eight weeks. My breathing was so difficult that I took a tablespoonful of the acid tincture of lobelia, and in about three or four minutes my breathing was as free as it ever was. I took another in ten minutes, after which I took a third, which I felt through every part of my body, even to the ends of my toes, and since that time I have enjoyed as good health as before the first attack.”
Dr. H. Nowell was asked to help a case of asthma where the regular doctors could do nothing. “To stop the cough,” they declared, “would stop the patient.” She was so severely afflicted with asthma, during attacks she would tear at her throat, fighting for breath. Both she and her husband begged their doctor to help but he said nothing could be done till after the child was born, as she was seven months pregnant with their first child. Dr. Nowell gave the husband a one-ounce bottle of the acid tincture of lobelia with the instructions “that a teaspoonful be given when the spasm came on, . . . a second teaspoonful ten minutes later . . . if necessary.” Almost immediately after taking the first dose she “brought up long, thick masses of phlegm from the lungs the size of a man’s fist.” She never had any more trouble with asthma.
My favorite story of all as it so aptly illustrates the tremendous good that lobelia is capable of doing for those suffering from asthma is one of Dr. Christopher’s. One night after Dr. Christopher had already been up for most of the night due to house calls, he heard a knock at the door. Two young fellows had brought their asthmatic father because his regular doctor was not available. Dr. Christopher gave him a cup of peppermint tea, fifteen minutes later a teaspoonful of lobelia tincture, ten minutes later another teaspoon dose and ten minutes later a third. He then began to throw up, and as Dr. Christopher put it, “During the time that the emetic principle was working and bringing up phlegm from his lungs and bronchial cavities, he ejected over a cupful of varicolored materials, ranging from light to dark, plus other liquids.” Though he was carried in, he walked out. For the first time in twenty years he slept in bed despite his boys claiming it would kill him. Now that all the mucus was out of his lungs he could breathe and he knew it. The very same week he went out and got a job as a gardener after being too sick to hold a job for twenty years. He had been on heavy medication with no hope of ever getting well.This is only one story of the great good lobelia did in the skillful hands of Dr. Christopher for many asthma suffers. He never had to use more than three teaspoons of the tincture of lobelia, because he was usually called during asthma attacks. He did not mind because he said “That is the best time to clear the ailment”. I.e. in one night asthma cured, after suffering 27 years.
 Scully, A Treasury of American Indian Herbs, part 2, page 202; Grieve, A Modern Herbal, page 495; USDA NRCS Plant Guide, page 1.
 Chevallier, The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants, Key Medicinal Plants, page 108
 Scully, A Treasury of American Indian Herbs, part 2, page 202 and 154.
 Scully, A Treasury of American Indian Herbs, part 2, page 166 and Chevallier, The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants, Key Medicinal Plants, page 108.
 Scully, A Treasury of American Indian Herbs, part 2, pages 202, 164 ;Chevallier, The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants, Key Medicinal Plants, page 108.
 Scully, A Treasury of American Indian Herbs, part 2, page 138.
 Scully, A Treasury of American Indian Herbs, part 2, page 202, 166, 138; Chevallier, The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants, Key Medicinal Plants, page 108.
 Scully, A Treasury of American Indian Herbs, part 2, page 202; Chevallier, The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants, Key Medicinal Plants, page 108.
 USDA NRCS Plant Guide, page 1
 Foster, Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs, page 207, Reader’s Digest, Magic and Medicine of Plants, page 132
 Chevallier, The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants, Key Medicinal Plants, p. 108; http://altnature.com/gallery/Blue_Lobelia.htm.
 King, King’s American Dispensatory, 1898, History of lobelia, www.henriettesherbal.com/eclectic/kings/lobelia.html
 Scully, A Treasury of American Indian Herbs, part 2, pages 202, 281, 136; Reader’s Digest, Magic and Medicine of Plants, Gallery of Medicinal Plants, page 132
 Scully, A Treasury of American Indian Herbs, part 2, page 217
 Scully, A Treasury of American Indian Herbs, part 2, page 192, 202
 Reader’s Digest, Magic and Medicine of Plants, Gallery of Medicinal Plants, page 132
 Christopher, School of Natural Healing , chapter 10, Lobelia, p. 394.
 King, King’s American Dispensatory found at www.henriettesherbal.com.
 Lloyd, Bulletin of the Lloyd Library of Botany, Pharmacy and Materia Medica , series 7, No. 11, 1909, Life and Medical Discoveries of Samuel Thomson, pp. 10-12.
 Lloyd, Bulletin of the Lloyd Library, Series 4, No. 18, 1911, History of the Vegetable Drugs of the Pharmacopeia of the United States, Lobelia, p. 78.
Lloyd, Bulletin of the Lloyd Library of Botany, Pharmacy and Materia Medica , series 7, No. 11, 1909, Life and Medical Discoveries of Samuel Thomson, p.12.
Lloyd, Bulletin of the Lloyd Library of Botany, Pharmacy and Materia Medica , No. 11, series 7, 1909, Life and Medical Discoveries of Samuel Thomson, p. 17
 Lloyd, Bulletin of the Lloyd Library of Botany, Pharmacy and Materia Medica , No. 11, series 7, 1909, Life and Medical Discoveries of Samuel Thomson, p. 17-20, 23-24
 Lloyd, Bulletin of the Lloyd Library of Botany, Pharmacy and Materia Medica , series 7, 1909, Life and Medical Discoveries of Samuel Thomson, p. 21, 24, 25, 26
 Lloyd, Bulletin of the Lloyd Library of Botany, Pharmacy and Materia Medica , No. 11, series 7, 1909, Life and Medical Discoveries of Samuel Thomson, p. 27, 66, 72
 Lloyd, Bulletin of the Lloyd Library of Botany, Pharmacy and Materia Medica , No. 11, series 7, 1909, Life and Medical Discoveries of Samuel Thomson.
 King, King’s American Dispensatory, 1898, found at www.henriettesherbal.com; Lloyd, Bulletin of the Lloyd Library, no. 18. Series 4, 1911, History of the Vegetable Drugs of the Pharmacopeia of the United States, p. 77.
 King, King’s American Dispensatory, 1898, found at www.henriettasherbal.com.
 Ellingwood, American Materia Medica – ch. 1 Special Nerve Stimulants, p. 15.
 Ellingwood, American Materia Medica, Lobelia, p. 275, 277.
 Griggs, Green Pharmacy, ch 20, pp. 170-172, 219.
 Kloss, Back to Eden, p. xi, section 2, pp 141-152; Christopher, School of Natural Healing, book jacket, ch 10. pp 393-403.
 Kloss, Back to Eden, section 2, p. 142, 143
 Christopher, School of Natural Healing, ch. 10, p. 395.
 Christopher, School of Natural Healing pp. 396-397.
 Kloss, Back to Eden, pp. 142-152; Page, How to be Your Own Herbal Pharmacist, p. 198; King, King’s American Dispensatory, 1898: Lobelia.
 Foster and Duke, Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants, p 207; Hopkins, Stock Your Medicine Cabinet Herbally, p. 12-13.
 Goodenough, The Favorite Medical Receipt Book and Home Doctor, department 5, p. 569.
 Kloss, Back to Eden, section 2, pp. 142, 144, 151; Lloyd, Bulletin of the Lloyd Library, No. 11, series 7, 1909, pp 27, 28.
 Christopher, School of Natural Healing, ch. 10 pp. 397, 401.
 Kloss, Back to Eden, section 2, p. 146, 142.
 The Medicines of Nature, Back to Eden, Back to Eden
 King, King’s American Dispensatory found at www.henriettesherbal.com
 Kadans, Modern Encyclopedia of Herbs p. 148, and Page, How to be Your Own Herbal Pharmacist p. 198
 Kloss, Back to Eden, p. 151.
 Kloss, Back to Eden p. 145
 Cech, Making Plant Medicine, part 2, p.167; Hopkins, Stock Your Medicine Cabinet Herbally, p. 13; Olendorf, The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 1999, v. 2, p. 795.
 Kloss, Back to Eden p. 145
 Kloss, Back to Eden, p. 144.
 Christopher, School of Natural Healing, ch. 10 pp. 401-402, Christopher, Herbal Legacy of Courage pp. 58-60; Christopher and Gileadi, Every Woman’s Herbal, p. 8