Lobelia (Lobelia inflata) is one of those little herbs that packs a giant punch! Potent to the point of purging or emesis (vomiting) in large doses, it has both highly stimulating and deeply relaxing action if taken in a large dose. It is not a friendly, tonic herb but it is extremely helpful for certain ailments, namely spasmodic coughing and asthma attacks; it’s one of the indispensable herbs I carry in my first aid kit! Herbalist Matthew Wood writes of Lobelia: “…we observe that it makes an impression on the tongue and nervous system which is sharp, shocking and highly diffusive. Because it is both a stimulant and a relaxant, the therapeutic potential of the plant is extensive, but contradictory and complex.” 5
Etymology & Botany
Lobelia is an erect annual or biannual herb, growing as low as 4 inches, or up to 36 inches tall. This herb tends to be shorter when growing in disturbed, compacted soil and taller when in meadows, forests, and large stands. Its flowers are white and blue, split tubular five-petalled, and small. They are about a quarter inch, positioned close to the stem and leaves. The stems are light to dark green, stiff, and somewhat hairy. Mature plants branch with the stems angled upwards towards the top of the plant while younger plants often have only a single stem.
The leaves are ovate or oblong with slightly serrated margins. Leaves are joined close to the stem, arranged alternately, and narrow into a short petiole. The seed pods for which L. inflata is named are inflated and round. The seeds rattle inside with wind or movement.8 The first name, Lobelia, is after the Flemish 16th century physician and botanist Matthias de Lobel.4
Lobelia has long been used by North American Indigenous Peoples as a medicinal plant, an emetic, and a dermatological and respiratory aid as well as for ceremonial and entheogenic practices.
Lobelia inflata, also sometimes referred to as ‘Indian tobacco’ or ‘Puke weed’ is a species of Lobelia native to the land currently known as North America. It’s native range extends from southeastern Canada through the eastern U.S. down to Alabama and west to Kansas.8 Various species of Lobelia are ubiquitous world wide, though for the purposes of this article, we’ll be focusing on L. inflata, which is the species we use most commonly in the practice of western herbalism.
It has been an important and divisive herb in the history of western herbalism. However, long before European colonizers came to use this herb, Lobelia was widely utilized among Indigenous North American tribes including the Cherokee, Crow, Iroquois, and Penobscot. The Cherokee burned its leaves as a natural insecticide. They also used poultice of the root for body aches and leaves for a stiff neck. Aerial parts were used topically on bites, stings, sores, and boils. Internally, the Cherokee used it as a strong emetic in raw plant form or as an infusion ingested as a strong emetic. They also used it as a respiratory aid, for asthma, sore throat, or cough.3
The Crow burned and administered Lobelia mainly for ceremonial medicine, and were known to throw a bit of the powdered herb into the air to ward off thunderstorms.5 The Iroquois employed it as a purgative, as a psychological aid for tobacco or alcohol habit, and as a magical conduit for love medicine and protection against misfortune.6 The Penobscot used it for spasmodic cough, asthma, and muscle tension.3
Indigenous peoples and Europeans used L. inflata medicinally for quite some time; North American lobelias were brought to Europe in the 16th century for their medicinal actions. However, with the introduction of heroic medicine and allopathy in the late 1800s (the beginnings of modern medicine), the safety and appropriateness of using herbs and, specifically, Lobelia came into question.
In the 19th century, its medicinal use was revived most notably by American herbalist and teacher Samuel Thompson, who used it for asthma, whooping cough and bronchitis. It became a symbolic herb of the eclectic physicians, country doctors, and herbalists of the time and for a half a century or so, it was again used and promoted in a variety of ways. These eclectic healers and herbalists were sometimes called “Lobelia doctors”, a derogatory term at the time, based on its enthusiastic use among them, and public debate about the safety of this herb; Samuel Thompson, though acquitted, was accused of killing a patient with an overdose of this purgative herb (this patient was also being treated by an allopathic doctor).5
After this period, and after the veritable war waged on herbal medicine by the formation of the American Medical Association (AMA), Lobelia and most herbal medicine fell out of favor. However, a standardized extract of Lobeline, an active constituent in the herb, was used in modern medicine as recently as the 1970s. As recommended in standard U.S. pharmacology texts, doses of up to 20mg of Lobeline hydrochloride should be administered by intramuscular injection in cases of asthma attack or respiratory depression, as an emergency respiratory stimulant.3
Lobelia is anti-asthmatic, antispasmodic, expectorant, emetic, and nervine in action. Its energetics are pungent and sharp, the temperature neutral or changeable depending on the individual, and the taste is acrid and irritating, like that of tobacco, causing salivation. It should only be administered in very small, drop doses.5
Asthma, Acute Respiratory Infection & Spasmodic Cough
Modern uses for Lobelia include as an antispasmodic for relaxing the smooth muscles of the respiratory tract, as in a spastic cough. It has been proven to reduce bronchospasm, and as stated above, Lobeline was an important drug for respiratory symptoms until the 1970s.3 It is also known to support the cough reflex and improve vascular tone; in addition, it’s an expectorant, thinning the mucous and making it easier to expel. Specific indications include wet coughs, like bronchitis, with excessive discharge and congestion; chronic dry, spastic coughs; and wet, wracking coughs with fever.
Herbalist Michael Moore writes, “…in other words, [Lobelia is indicated for] instances where respiratory tract secretions are either insufficient or in excess.”5 It is often used for acute conditions, but may also be used in small doses over a period of time for chronic conditions like asthma. In this case, it is often combined with other, gentler herbs tailored to the personal constitution.
Anxiety, Depression, & Ceasing Smoking
In small doses, Lobelia is helpful for symptoms of anxiety and has a marked relaxing effect on the Central Nervous System (CNS), Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), and overall neuromuscular activity. It calms and slows the heartbeat and loosens the muscles, relieving tension or cramping.2 Several studies have shown that Lobelia triggered the release of norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain, giving it an antidepressant action.7 Additionally, it has also been used as an aid to quit smoking. Lobeline, one of the main alkaloid constituents, mimics the peripheral and central effects of Nicotine, without the addictive properties. Regular, intentional doses of Lobelia can replace the desire for smoking in certain individuals, and it is often used in herbal formulas for cessation of smoking.5 It can be a wonderful ally for those who smoke due to anxiety and depression.
Inflammatory & Convulsive Disorders
Due to its relaxing effects on the CNS and ANS, Lobelia is indicated in convulsive and inflammatory disorders such as epilepsy, seizures, tetanus, diphtheria, angina pain, and debilitating back spasms. Where relaxation of the CNS or ANS is required to subdue spasming, it is invaluable. Several studies have shown that active constituent Lobeline reduces epileptic seizures by enhancing the GABA release in the brain; it appears to work especially well in cases of petit mal epilepsy.10
In addition, it has been used in treating tetanus or “lock jaw”; chorea, a nervous disease causing involuntary and irregular movements; delirium tremens; and even poisoning by strychnine, ptomaine, and toadstools.8 Samuel Thompson wrote, “In cases where the spasms are so violent that they are stiff, and the jaws become set, by pouring some of this liquid into the mouth between the cheek and teeth, as soon as it touches the glands roots of the tongue, the spasms will relax, and the jaw will become loosened so that the mouth will open; then give a dose of it, and as soon as the spasms have abated, repeat it. After this, administer appropriate restorative or tonic herbs.”6
Lobelia is an emetic and purgative herb. Despite many unsubstantiated claims to the contrary, if used with care and proper dose, it may actually be safe for everyone, including children, the elderly, and pregnant people. However, it can be potentially toxic in large doses, therefore it should only be taken in drop doses. Lobelia is contraindicated in cardiovascular disease, as it may raise heart rate and create hypotension. Avoid taking regular doses of it if you are: using drugs that are CNS depressants, or have a liver disorder or disease.9 As with any herb or supplement, consult an informed herbalist and primary healthcare practitioner before use.
Methods of Medicinal Use
Lobelia may be used in many forms by the skillful herbalist; the following preparation suggestions are the most widely used and accessible to obtain. For respiratory issues, it is often combined with other herbs suited to the person’s constitution, like Elecampane, Mullein, Hyssop, Cayenne, Ginger, Marshmallow, which may improve tolerance and efficacy.
A tincture is perhaps the most common medicinal preparation, as it’s portable, effective, and easier to control dosing with tincture. Again, dosage should generally be no more than 1-5 drops at a time.
To make a Lobelia tincture, if using fresh flowers and seeds, a 1:2 ratio of herb to alcohol is recommended; alcohol should be at about 95%. If using dried plant material, a 1:5 in 65% alcohol is suggested. Sometimes a small amount (15-25% liquid) of vinegar (I prefer Apple Cider Vinegar) is added to the tincture or substituted for the alcohol entirely. An acetic extraction is the more traditional preparation, and is thought to increase the potency while decreasing the likeliness of unpleasant effects and purging. If using vinegar, place a piece of wax paper between the lid and jar so the metal of the lid doesn’t corrode. Let the tincture sit for 4-6 weeks, shaking daily. Strain, bottle, label, and use responsibly.4
A liniment may be made for topical use; this preparation is especially helpful for relieving localized cramping and muscle pain. It also helps neck and chest congestion during respiratory infection. In these cases, rub the Lobelia liniment over affected areas. To make, pour Isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol over fresh or dried Lobelia. Let the liniment sit for 4-6 weeks, shaking daily. Strain, bottle, label, and use topically.5
A small amount of dried Lobelia may be added to herbal smoking blends. It can be especially helpful when the intention is to wean off of nicotine and tobacco dependency. The Lobelia should be just a pinch in comparison to the other herbs in the blend; other herbs I like to include are Mullein, Skullcap, Raspberry leaf, and Damiana. Smoking small amounts of it may also help with the symptoms of asthma.
A Word of Care & Caution
Lobelia inflata is listed by United Plant Savers as a to-watch plant, with this statement, “Very limited wild harvest is permissible when no other alternative will do” 1. If patches are harvested entirely before seedpods mature and drop seeds, populations could be reduced or eliminated. When and if you choose to wildcraft (which, in this case especially, I do not recommend), never take more than 10% of a stand, and never harvest the first plants you find, because they could be the last. If harvested seeds are mature, it is advisable to scatter those throughout the habitat. When harvesting, use only the aerial parts, and harvest only between the end of July and the end of October.1
Instead of wildcrafting, why not try growing your own Lobelia? This herb fares well in a variety of soil conditions. Seeds should be sown in preferably late fall (the way the plant does it), or in spring. Top-sow the seeds into finely sifted soil, and keep them moist, irrigating twice weekly if summers are dry, and keeping patches well weeded.1
If neither growing or wildcrafting it is an option, consider purchasing products containing Lobelia from local makers and businesses. Such as a neighborhood herb store or health food co-op, or trusted, small businesses on the internet. Carefully selected, small batch herbal products with Lobelia can be found at The Alchemist’s Kitchen. My favorite is this amazing certified organic Clear Chest Aid Syrup by Urban Moonshine that offers potent immunity-boosting properties which provide immediate bronchial relief. A much better substitute for over-the-counter cough syrup!
- Anderson Gellar, Cascade. “Planting the Future” – Link
- Association for the Advancement of Restorative Medicine. “Lobelia (Lobelia Inflata)” – Link
- Folquitto, D, et al. “Biological activity, phytochemistry and traditional uses of genus Lobelia (Campanulaceae): a systematic review.” – Link
- Grieve, Maud. “A Modern Herbal – Lobelia inflata” – Link
- Irvine, Heather. “Lobelia” – Link
- King, Rosanna. “Lobelia” – Link
- Marciano, Marisa. “Lobelia inflata” – Link
- Rodgers, Maureen. “Lobelia” – Link
- Society for Science-Based Medicine Wiki. “FDA Warning” (1993). – Link
- Tamboli, Abrar M et al. “Antiepileptic activity of lobeline isolated from the leaf of Lobelia inflata and its effect on brain GABA level in mice.” Asian Pacific journal of tropical biomedicine vol. 2,7 (2012) – Link