Lobelia inflata is an annual or biennial herb which grows up to three feet tall. It has hairy green stems touched with violet that branch at the top. The leaves are light green or yellow-green, and have a sharp taste and an acrid, irritation scent similar to that of tobacco. The flowers are pale violet on the outside, and pale yellow on the inside (umm.edu n.d.). The plant is native to North America, ranging from southern Canada to Georgia and west to Arkansas and Kansas.
L. inflata is unusual in that the seeds need light to germinate, not darkness. The seeds are sprinkled on wet soil and barely pressed down. They must be watered from beneath or with a light mist on top. When sproutlings are three months old, they may be potted or transplanted to an area with rich soil and full sun or partial shade. Plant material is best harvested when the seed pods are just beginning to form. Dry in a well ventilated space away from direct sunlight (Roth 2004). Cultivated plants have been found to contain twice as many active alkaloids as wild plants (Krochmal et al. 1972).
TRADITIONAL USES: L. inflata is used by the Crow of the Yellowstone River Valley as part of rituals, and also has a history of use in the love magic of the Pawnee of Oklahoma and the Mesquakie of the lower peninsula of Michigan (Ott 1993). It is often added to kinnikinnick and other smoking blends, or smoked alone as a tobacco substitute – hence the name Indian Tobacco. The Penescot use the plant to cause sweating and vomiting in order to drive out evil spirits, and smoke the plant to improve clarity and induce relaxation (Voogelbreinder 2009, 216).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: The flowers and seeds of L. inflata may be used to prepare tinctures or infusions, and the dried flowers and herbage may be smoked or used as an incense. Tinctures may be taken internally, or may be applied externally as a poultice to treat sprains, bruises, and skin diseases. A tea may be made by steeping the dried herb for 30 to 40 minutes in hot (not boiling) water. It is important to start with very small doses (2-4 tablespoons), as higher doses may cause unpleasant or dangerous side effects (Graves n.d.).
4 ounces of L. inflata seeds may be crushed and placed in 2 pints of vinegar solution for seven days. At this time the seeds are filtered out and 1 ounce of alcohol or acetic acid may be added. This preparation may be used as an emetic, expectorant, and to treat nausea and spasms. The vinegar may be combined with honey to make it more palatable (Graves n.d.).
MEDICINAL USES: L. inflata is smoked by indigenous Americans to treat asthma, throat and lung irritation, bronchitis, and coughs (Ratsch 1998, 565). 19th century American doctors used the plant to induce vomiting and cleanse the body, from which practice the plant received the name ‘puke weed’. The plant is known for clearing mucus from the respiratory system, and is very valuable in subduing bodily spasms (Grieve n.d.)
An active ingredient in L. inflata, lobeline, has properties and a structure very similar to nicotine. Therefore, it fits into nicotine receptors, and can sooth cravings for individuals trying to quit smoking tobacco. Thanks to this property, the herb has become popular among individuals who are looking for effective ways to quit smoking. However, since the plant can cause vomiting and nausea if it is overused, it is essential to use this medicine with great care (sweetsmokeherbs.com 2012).
Homeopathic preparations of L. inflate are taken to assist with nausea, vomiting, asthma, and impeded respiration (abchomeopathy.com n.d.)
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: L. inflata contains numerous piperidine alkaloids. The main one, lobeline, acts as a nicotine antagonist, which may be used as a nicotine substitute to assist with withdrawal (Szoke et al. 1993). Nevertheless, in 1993 the FDA prohibited the sale of smoking products containing lobeline, declaring that they were not helpful in reducing smoking. However, more recent studies may be disproving this assumption (umm.edu n.d.)
L. inflata is both sedating and stimulating when smoked alone, an effect which is somewhat difficult to explain in words, and which can be quite surprising to those with no prior knowledge of the plant (Ratsch 1998, 565).
L. inflata is potentially toxic – in small doses, it is quite safe, but moderate to large doses can cause dry mouth, nausea, vomiting, elevated heart rate, confusion, convulsions, coma, and even death. Individuals with high blood pressure, heart or liver disease, seizure disorders, or tobacco sensitivity must avoid working with this plant. It may also exacerbate digestive troubles. Therefore, it is essential to be careful when working with this plant (umm.edu n.d.).
In Mexico, the related L. cliffordtiana is known as one of the ‘herbs that make one crazy’ (Martínez 1987 cited in Ratsch 1998, 565), and is sometimes used in inebriating smoking blends.
Graves, M. “Lobelia.” A Modern Herbal, n.d. http://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/l/lobeli38.html.
Krochmal, A., L. Wilken, and M. Chien. “Plant and Lobeline Harvest of Lobelia Inflata L.” Economic Botany 26 (1972): 216–220.
“Lobelia.” University of Maryland Medical Center, n.d. http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/lobelia-000264.htm.
“Lobelia Inflata – Homeopathic Remedies”, n.d. http://abchomeopathy.com/r.php/Lob.
Ott, J. Pharmacotheon: Entheogenic Drugs, Their Plant Sources And History. Natural Products Company, 1993.
Roth, H.A. “Lobelia Seeds from Alchemy Works – Seeds for Magick Herbs and Pagan Gardens”, 2004. http://www.alchemy-works.com/lobelia_inflata.html.
Szoke, E., A. Krajewska, and A. Nesmélyi. “NMR Characterization of Alkaloids from Lobelia Inflata.” Planta Medica 59, no. A704 (1993).