Lobelia inflata. N.O. Campanulaceae.
Synonym ► Indian Tobacco, Pukeweed, Emetic Weed. Habitat ► North America ; cultivated in Salt Lake City.
Features ► A biennial herb, in height from twelve to eighteen inches, the stem is angular and slightly hairy. One to three inches long, the leaves are alternate, sessile, and ovate-lanceolate, with small, whitish glands on the edge. The fruit is in the form of a flat, oval capsule, which contains ovate-oblong seeds about one eighth of an inch long, brown in colour, with a reticulated, pitted surface. The root is fibrous, and the plant bears a small blue, pointed flower. The taste is burning and acrid like tobacco, the odour slight. Part used ► Herb and seeds are used.
Action ► Emetic, stimulant, antispasmodic, expectorant, and diaphoretic.
Lobelia inflata has for many years been one of the most widely discussed and hotly debated articles used in medicine. While many herbalists contend that it is the most valuable of all botanic remedies, official medicine in England classifies it as a poison. Herbalists who use Lobelia insist that it is most certainly not a poison, and that it can be administered by them in large doses with perfect safety. They use it chiefly as an emetic, and, as its administration brings about the prompt removal of accumulations of mucus, the action in bronchial complaints is speedy and beneficial. Coffin’s comments in this connection are enthusiastic ► “Lobelia is decidedly the most certain and efficient emetic known, and is at the same time safe in its operations. Unlike most emetics from the mineral kingdom, it produces its specific effect without corroding the stomach or producing morbid irritation and inflammation of the mucous membrane of this organ, which are so common in the use of antimony, zinc, and the sulphate of copper. Lobelia may emphatically be said to ‘operate in unison with the laws of life’.”
In view of the controversy surrounding its use, the history of Lobelia is interesting. North American Indians had apparently long been acquainted
with its properties, but its first introduction to general use was due to the efforts of the famous American, Samuel Thomson. His disciple, Dr. Coffin, brought the herb to this country and used it extensively in his practice for over forty years, apparently with great success “in almost every form of disease, and from the tender infant to the aged,” to quote Coffin himself. In both America and Britain herbalists have been tried on charges of causing death by administering Lobelia, but in no instance has a verdict been obtained against them.