Indian Tobacco

This large genus consists of about 370 species of annuals, perennials, deciduous and evergreen shrubs and small trees distributed throughout temperate and tropical zones, especially in the Americas. It provides a wide range of colorful, long-flowering plants for most garden situations, including moist soil and containers. A number of lobelias contain piperidine alkaloids, notably lobeline, the stimulate respiration and cause vomiting. These include the ornamental L. cardinalis; L. rupa (Devil's tobacco). used to treat toothache and smoked as a narcotic by Chilean tribes; and L. siphilitica (great lobelia), used with Podophyllum peltatum (See, May Apple) as a remedy for venereal diseases. Lobelia inflata was used by native N Americans for bronchial complaints and was popularized by Samuel Thompson (1769-1843), a pioneer herbalist and founder of Physiomedicalism. He was prosecuted, but found not guilty of its misuse in 1809. Lobelia is named after Matthias de l'Obel (1538-1616), physician to James I of England.

Spreading, downy annual, with ovate, toothed leaves, 5-8cm (2-3in) oong. Light blue, often pink-tinged flowers appear in summer, followed by inflated, 2-valved capsules.

Common Name:
Indian Tobacco
Other Names:
Asthma weed, Pukeweed
Botanical Name:
Lobelia inflata
Native Location:
Eastern and Central N America
Rich, moist soil in sun or partial shade. Lobelia inflata prefers slightly acid soil.
By division in spring (perennials); by seed sown at 13-18°C (55-64°F); annuals in late winter, perennials as soon as ripe.
Whole plants are cut when flowering. (L. inflata when lower fruits are ripe); used fresh or dried in decoctions (L. chinensis), infusions, liquid extracts, and tinctures.
Harmful if eater. Skin irritant and allergen.
This herb and its alkaloids are subject to legal restrictions in some countries.
20-60cm (8-24in)
10-30cm (4-12in)
Parts Used:
Whole plant
An acrid, emetic herb that stimulates respiration, increases perspiration rate, reduces inflammation, and is expectorant.
Medicinal Uses:
Internally for asthma, bronchitis, whooping cough, and pleurisy. Excess causes nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, and respiratory failure. Not given to pregnant women or patients with heart complaints. Externally for pleurisy, rheumatism, tennis elbow, whiplash injuries, boils, and ulcers. For use by qualified practioners only.
Economic Uses:
An important ingredient of commercial anti-smoking tobaccos (imitating effects of nicotine) and cough mixtures.
Encyclopedia of Herbs by Deni Brown Copyright © 1995, 2001 Dorling Kindersley Limited. Pp. 265-266