Lobelia inflata. Indian tobacco.

Botanical name: 

Pl. 19. Lobelia inflata. IN the United States there are many species of Lobelia, which are interesting for their beauty, singularity or use. We have few plants more elegant than the cardinal flower, and few more curious in structure than the Lobelia Dortmanna. In medicinal powers, the subject of this article is entitled to take precedence of the rest. It is an annual plant, found in fields and road sides, from Canada to the southern states. It flowers from midsummer until the arrival of frosts.

The genus Lobelia has a five cleft calyx; a monopetalozis, irregular corolla, icith a cleft tube; the anthers cohering; the capsule two or three celled.

The species inflata is branching and hairy, with ovate, serrate leaves, and turgid capsules.

The connexion of the anthers into a tube has caused some ambiguity and difference of opinion, as to the place which this genus should occupy, in the Linnaean system. Linnaeus placed it in his order Monogamia of the class Syngenesia. Most of our late botanists have very properly removed the plants of this order from the compound flowers, with which they have no natural affinity, to Pentandria, which place their number of stamens authorizes them to occupy. Pursh has placed the Lobelias under Monadelphia. The Natural order which contains them is the Campanaceae of Linnaeus and Jussieu.

The Lobelia inflata varies in height from six inches to two or three feet. The small plants are nearly simple, the large ones much branched. Root fibrous. Stem erect, in the full sized plant much branched, angular, very hairy. Leaves scattered, sessile, oval, serrate, veiny and hairy. Flowers in spikes or racemes, pedunculated, each one in the axil of a small leaf. Segments of the calyx linear, acute, standing on the germ, which is oval and striated. Corolla bluish purple, the tube prismatic and cleft above, the segments spreading, acute, the two upper ones lanceolate, the three lower ones oval. Anthers collected into an oblong, curved body, purple; filaments white. Style filiform; stigma curved and inclosed by the anthers. Capsules two celled, turgid, oval, compressed, ten angled, covered with the calyx. Seeds numerous, small, oblong, brown.

The Lobelia inflata when broken, emits a milky juice. When chewed, it communicates to the mouth a burning, acrimonious sensation, not unlike the taste of green tobacco. It exhibits the following noticeable ingredients upon chemical examination. 1. An acrid principle. This is evident to the taste in the tincture, decoction, and distilled water. 2. Caoutchouc. Sulphuric ether dissolves more of the plant than alcohol, and acquires a higher colour. The solution in alcohol is scarcely rendered turbid by water, that in ether is disturbed by alcohol, and grows thick as the ether evaporates. 3. Extractive. No gummy or astringent qualities were manifested in my experiments.

The great acrimony of the leaves and capsules, combined with a narcotic property, appears to be the foundation of their medicinal power. Dr. Cutler informs us, that if the leaves be held for some time in the mouth, they produce giddiness and pain in the head, with a trembling agitation of the whole body, and at length bring on nausea and vomiting. These effects are analagous to those, which the chewing or smoking of tobacco occasions in persons unaccustomed to its use.

When swallowed in substance, it excites very speedy vomiting, accompanied with distressing and long continued sickness, and even with dangerous symptoms, if the dose be large. A melancholy instance of death, occasioned by the use of this plant, in the hands of a quack, is detailed in the sixth volume of the Massachusetts Reports, in the trial of Samuel Thomson, an empiric practising in Beverly, for the murder of Ezra Lovett. In this trial it appeared, that the patient, being confined by a cold, sent for the pretended physician, who gave him three powders of Lobelia in the course of half an hour, each of which vomited him violently, and left him in a great perspiration during the night. The next day two more powders were administered, each of which operated by vomiting and occasioned great distress. In like manner two other powders were given the subsequent day, leaving the patient in a state of great prostration. Several days after this, the physician came again, and finding his patient still worse, administered several more powders, which occasioned great distress, and at length ceased to operate. Finding that the stomach was not sensible to the emetic effect of the Lobelia, the physician repeated the dose, and when the patient complained of great distress at the breast and said he was dying, the doctor assured him the medicine would soon get down, or operate as a cathartic. However, on the same evening, the patient lost his reason and became convulsed, so that two men were required to hold him. To relieve which, the doctor forced down two more of his powders, and the patient, as was to he expected, grew worse, and continued so until he expired. (Read what really happened here. Lobelia isn't toxic, and Thomson wasn't guilty. -Henriette)

The doctor, who had thus terminated the disease and the patient at once, was arrested and put upon trial for murder; but the homicide proving a legitimate one from the want of sufficient evidence of malice propense, he was acquitted and set at liberty.

From the violence of its effects, and the distressing nausea which it occasions, it is probable that the Lobelia will never come into use for the common purposes of an emetic, while other emetics can be obtained. It has however been found to exert a beneficial influence on particular diseases, and on this account is entitled to a place in the Materia Medica. Dr. Cutler, and a number of physicians in Essex county and elsewhere, have found benefit from its use in asthma, some in doses of a table spoonful of the saturated tincture, others in doses of a teaspoonful. Indeed the former dose appears to be a very large one, and greater than most stomachs would bear with impunity. I have tried this medicine in several cases of asthma with some advantage. It has not however in general succeeded in affording relief of the paroxysm, until full vomiting was produced, which effect, with me, has happened after taking one or two teaspoonfuls.

A communication from Dr. Cutler, on the operation of this plant, is inserted in Dr. Thacher's Dispensatory. The venerable writer having himself suffered from asthma for ten years, had, during the paroxysms, resorted to many medicines for relief, without experiencing much benefit from any. He was at length induced to make trial of a tincture, prepared by himself from the Lobelia inflata. "In a paroxysm," says he, "which perhaps was as severe as I had ever experienced; the difficulty of breathing extreme, and after it had continued for a considerable time, I took a table spoonful. In three or four minutes my breathing was as free as it ever was, but I felt no nausea at the stomach. In ten minutes I took another spoonful, which occasioned sickness. After ten minutes I took a third, which produced sensible effects upon the coats of the stomach, and a very little moderate puking, and a kind of prickly sensation through the whole system, even to the extremities of the fingers and toes. But all these sensations very soon subsided, and a vigour seemed to be restored to the constitution, which I had not experienced for years. I have not since had a paroxysm, and only a few times some small symptoms of asthma. Besides the violent attacks, I had scarcely passed a night without more or less of it, and often so as not to be able to lie in bed. Since that time I have enjoyed as good health, as perhaps before the first attack."

Dr. Cutler considers his disease to be what Dr. Bree in his "Practical inquiries on disordered respiration" calls the first species, "an asthma from pulmonic irritation of effused serum."

Dr. Randall informs me, that he has given the Lobelia to many persons of different ages suffering from asthma and catarrh, and with considerable variation in the form and degree of the dose. In asthma he finds it as successful as any article he has tried. When given in doses of a drachm of the saturated tincture, and two or three times repeated at convenient intervals; also in the form of other preparations of similar strength, he has found it usually to remove the paroxysm in a short time, and to restore the patient to quietude and ease. In catarrh, when given in small doses and frequently repeated, it has operated as a sure and speedy expectorant, producing effects in their most important character, very similar to those of antimony and squills. Dr. Randall has not observed any narcotic effect to ensue from moderate doses, nor found it to produce irritation of the coats of the bladder, as has been suggested by some practitioners. In his hands it has not produced any more unpleasant consequence than frequent nausea, and occasional emesis, with a copious flow from the glands of the mouth.

Dr. Bradstreet of Newburyport acquaints me, that besides asthmatic cases, he has given the saturated tincture in two or three instances of dyspepsia, also in some cases of a rheumatic nature with beneficial consequences.

He considers its sensible effects to be very like those of common tobacco, but its medicinal action more speedy and diffusible, and of shorter duration. He thinks that it affects those accustomed to the use of tobacco as readily as others.

The Lobelia has been recommended as a remedy in hooping cough and croup. In the former of these complaints, I can say nothing of its use from experience, but in the latter disease I am persuaded, it affords no benefit, having seen it largely tried by different practitioners in a number of fatal cases, where it only produced a distressing nausea, without, in any degree, facilitating the respiration, or relieving the disease.

The active properties of the Lobelia are readily extracted both by water and alcohol. The tincture however is most easily kept, and is the most convenient form for exhibition. The Essex district medical society have recommended a formula for this composition, which directs two ounces of the dried plant to be digested in a pint of diluted alcohol. Of this tincture, a teaspoonful given to an adult, will generally produce nausea, and sometimes vomiting. In certain instances however, much larger doses have been given, without producing any other effect than a flow of saliva.

Botanical References.

Lobelia inflata, Lin. Sp. pl.
Act. Upsal. 1741, p. 23, t. 1.
Gronovius, Virg. 134.
Willd. Sp. pl. i. 946.
Michaux, ii. 142.
Pursh, ii. 448.

Medical References.

Cutler, Mem. Amer. Acad. i. 484.
Schoepf, 128.
Bart. Col. 36, 56.
Thacher, Disp. 2,67.
Massachusetts Reports vol. vi.

American Medical Botany, 1817-1821, was written by Jacob Bigelow, M. D.