Walking through the late summer woods, I find different colors of yellow, purple, pink, and white. Standing out among these are the brightly colored Lobelias. Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphiltica) is striking with its deep blue/purple blooms standing at 2-3 feet tall. You can’t miss them near the river, stream beds, or other moist soils in central and eastern United States.
According to A Modern Herbal by M. Grieve, the root was used as a diaphoretic, emetic, and cathartic. However, indigenous people used the leaves and roots for multiple purposes; such as, an anthelmintic for worms, analgesic for pain, a pulmonary aid, a hemostat to stop nose bleeds, a febrifuge to reduce fevers, and a gastrointestinal aid for stomach trouble. (Native American Medicinal Plants, D. Moerman)
A few feet away, I see a bright red flower belonging to Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis). This plant is more scarce in the woods than it’s cousin Great Blue Lobelia due to the smaller tubular flowers and less insects able to assist in the pollination of the plant. Hummingbirds tend to help in pollination by feeding on the nectar.
This plant tends to grow a bit taller and can reach 5 feet tall. Cardinal flower also grows in moist terrains and can take either sun or shaded areas. It is said to be anthelmintic, nervine, and antispasmodic (Grieves,M.). It seems that indigenous people used this plant interchangeably with Great Blue Lobelia with a few differences. It was used as a love medicine whereas Great Blue Lobelia was used as Witchcraft medicine for anti-bewitchment! I did find it interesting that the Iroquois took the compound decoction of the whole plant for sickness caused by grieving. (Moerman, D.)
As for my medicinal cabinet, I utilize Lobelia inflata which is the most common lobelia documented and used today. All the these plants contain lobeline an alkaloid similar to nicotine. Many resources say that they are poisonous and cause nausea, vomiting, sweating, paralysis, depressed temperature, rapid pulse, convulsions, collapse, coma, and death in human beings when taken in large amounts. The whole plant (not the isolated alkaloid) is not poisonous in any way. It will cause nausea, vomiting, sweating, and rapid pulse when you take more than you should, but it stops there. It is impossible to take too much due to the emetic action when you do. Your body will rid itself of this plant if you get too much ingested. I have never seen documentation on convulsions, collapse, coma or death. I have been using Lobelia inflata for many years and have yet to see these unsupported claims. It is; however, a low-dose botanical to be used in small doses.
As you can tell from the above images, L. inflata is more difficult to spot in the wild than the other two. This lobelia grows from 1 to 2 1/2 feet tall and is the shortest of the three. I specifically use lobelia internally and externally. I like it in formulas as a directive herb to drive the other herbs to their destination especially if the nervous, respiratory, or musculoskeletal system is involved. It is considered an anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, nervine, analgesic, anti-emetic and emetic depending on dose, expectorant, and a vasodilator. I utilize lobelia in cases of asthma, wheezing, shortness of breath and any respiratory ailment with a tincture. In cases like these, I use a dose of 20 drops one time. When the nervous system is involved such as tension, nervousness, anxiety, or nerve pain; I will use between 3-7 drops. I feel it is best in this situation to combine lobelia with other nervine herbs in a formula rather than single use. I will also use the tincture externally, or make an infused salve to use for musculoskeletal issues. It is wonderful for muscle spasms and uterine cramping externally. It alleviates pain as well when used directly on the area affected.
Hopefully, you can get a chance to see each of these beautiful plants in your area sometime soon. Before using any herb, please be sure to research them completely especially if you are on any pharmaceutical medications or have a medical condition.