Lobelia Syphilitica. Blue Lobelia.

Botanical name: 

Plate 36. Lobelia Syphilitica. PART USED.—The entire flowering plant [The Homoeopaths who are the only school of medicine that use the plant employ a tincture of the entire plant. When introduced into medicine the root was the part employed.] Lobelia syphilitica, Linnaeus

Natural Order, Campanulaceae, Tribe Lobelieae.

BOTANICAL DESCRIPTION.—Blue Lobelia is generally found in damp, low-grounds, wet meadows, and especially near streams. The stem is usually un-branched and grows erect from one to two feet high. It is angular below and smooth for the most part, or with a few scattered hairs. It has numerous horizontal leaves and late in summer a terminal showy spike-like raceme of large blue flowers.

The leaves are ovate-lanceolate, tapering to both ends, sessile or the lower with a margined petiole, and are three to five inches long, veiny, soft, dark green above, and lighter beneath. The margins are irregularly, erosely serrate. The leaves are very numerous, and as they are gradually shorter from the bottom up they give the plant a pyramidal aspect.

Fig. 138. A flower of Lobelia syphilitica. Fig. 139. The stamenata and pistillate columns The flowers appear the later part of August, lasting till frost. They have the same general structures as those of Lobelia inflata, the same characteristic corolla tube, but are much larger, being about one inch long. They are borne on short thick hairy peduncles in a terminal raceme.

The flowers are subtended at their base with leafy bracts which are large and leaf-like below and smaller above. The bracts have margins ciliate with white hairs, and when the plant is just beginning to develope its inflorescence, these bracts form a dense, roseate, terminal cluster, the numerous marginal hairs giving it a glandular appearance.

The calyx segments are five and are triangular, and have recurved margins which are prolonged at the base forming an ear-like appendage at each angle between the segments. [These ear-like appendages are not found on all species of Lobelia and form an artificial means of dividing the genus.] The segments are about three-quarters the length of the corolla tube. The corolla tube is from one-half to three-quarters of an inch long, split to the base on the upper side, and prominently five pliate beneath, the interior angles being of a brighter (almost white) color. The three lobes forming the lower lip of the corolla are reflexed, broadly triangular and subequal.

The five stamens are united together around the pistil, forming a column about the length of the corolla and protruding through its slit. This column is three-sided at the base and curved downward at the summit as shown in figure 139, p. 98. The five united anthers are not equal, the lower two being slightly shorter and tipped with a cottony tuft; they are of deep purple color and open with shallow slits down the back.

The pistil is enclosed in the tube formed by the stamens. This is a provision of nature that insures cross-fertilization. When the flower first opens and the stamens shed their pollen, the stigma is completely enclosed by the anthers and thus is prevented from receiving any of the pollen; afterwards when the pollen has been scattered, the style elongates, pushing the stigma a line or two beyond the tube, and is then fertilized by pollen from other flowers, mostly through the agency of bees and other insects.

Blue Lobelia is a very showy plant when in bloom, the deep blue color of the large flowers making it conspicuous. This color is well preserved when the plant is pressed carefully with frequent change to dry papers, but fades out in course of several months from the dried specimens. Sometimes, very rarely however, albinos are found with pure white flowers. [These were noticed and described as a distinct species as early as 1680 by Morrison. Tournefort, 1719, calls them by the common name "Cardinale blanche." They are according to our observation of a rare occurrence. Although the plant is a common one around Cincinnati, we have seen but a single albino. This was growing in a patch of the ordinary blue flowers, and it was pure white without a trace of coloring.]

After blooming the corollas do not fall off, but turn brown, wither up, and remain attached to the ripening seed-pods.

COMMON NAMES.—The most common name and the one most generally used for this plant is Blue Lobelia. While there are other species of Lobelia with blue flowers, (in fact all but a few have this color), still, the flowers of this plant are so much larger, conspicuous and brighter blue than any other, the name properly belongs to it. In most books it is called Blue Cardinal flower, sometimes incorrectly abbreviated to Blue Cardinal, but in our opinion the name is not appropriate. Cardinal flower is a name applied to Lobelia cardinalis, not from any resemblance of form to a Cardinal's cap, but from the bright scarlet color of its flowers. Lobelia cardinalis, the first species introduced into Europe was very properly called Cardinal flower ("Cardinale couleur de feu"—Tournefort, 1719), and when a second species, but with blue flowers was introduced, it was quite naturally called Blue Cardinal flower. We think that this is contradictory, the name Cardinal as applied to the flower refers exclusively to the color, and it is manifestly wrong to speak of Blue Cardinal in the same sense.

It is said that among the more ignorant classes who used this plant in domestic practice, it was known as High Belia, the supposition being that as the other kind (Lobelia inflata) was called Low Belia this must be the High Belia.

BOTANICAL HISTORY.—This plant was in cultivation in England as early as 1665, as it was mentioned in Ren's Flora published in London in that year, and it was cultivated in France no doubt a number of years earlier, it being mentioned by Lobelius in 1591. [Lobelius Icones Stirpium, Antwerp, 1591, mentioned under the name Trachelium Americanum, flore caruleo. (Linnaeus' citation to this in Species Plantarum, and later editions, (not 1st.), is "Rob. ic." and Barton copies the error.)]

In most early works it was described under the generic name Rapunculus. [Rapunculus Americanus, flore dilute caeruleo.—Dodart, Memoires pour servir a l'Histoire des Plantes, Paris, 1676, p. 297. Same—Tournefort, Institutiones Rei Herbariae, Paris, 1719, p. 163. Rapunculus galeatus Virginianus, flore violaceo majore.—Morison, Plantarum Historia universalis, Oxoniensis, 1680, vol. ii., p. 466.] When Linnaus was preparing his Species Plantarum, Peter Kalm [Peter Kalm was a Swedish naturalist who traveled three years in the northeastern portion of this country from the fall of 1747 to the spring of 1751. He was a pupil of Linnaeus, and it was at his advice that the journey was made. On return to Sweden he wrote a detailed account of his travels, which was published in three volumes in 1753, 1756 and 1761, and was translated into German, French and English, the latter translation by J. R. Forster was printed in London in 1770-71.
It was Kalm who furnished the most of the specimens of North American plants described in the Species Plantarum of Linnaeus. These plants are marked with the letter K, in the Linnaean herbarium, and constitute the greater part of the plants from this country that are in the collection.
When Kalm was in this country he learned from Sir William Johnson of the reputation of Lobelia syphilitica among the Indians for the cure of syphilis, and on his return wrote an account which was published in Latin.]
had just returned (1751) from America with wonderful accounts of the virtues of this plant as a certain cure for syphilis, [Kalm published his account in the Act. Acad. Scient. Holmen, under the title "Lobelia ut efficax remedium contra luem venereum, a Petro Kalmio descripta."
And another account in Latin was written in 1756, by Peter Engstroem, a pupil of Linnaeus, and published in the Amcenitates Academics, vol. iv., p. 524.]
(see Medical History,) and Linnaeus gave the name syphilitica as the specific name for the plant. [Species Plantarum, Linnaeus. 1753, page 931. Described in the Class "Syngenesis Monogamia" and with the following specific description.
"Lobelia caule crecto, fohis ovato-lanceolatis crenatis, calycum sinubus reflexis."]

Although its reputation as a cure for this disease has long been disproved, still the name remains, and probably always will, a monument of an early error. It has never had but one synonym, Rapuntium syphiliticum, by Miller.

DESCRIPTION OF THE DRUG.—All parts of Lobelia syphilitica are devoid of prominent characteristics. The plant is insipid and herb-like, the fresh root has simply a turnip-like taste. The root is the portion that was directed to be used when the plant was introduced, but at present no portion of the plant is an article of commerce.

According to Rafinesque [Medical Flora of the United States, vol. ii., p. 25.] it was once analyzed in France, but the result did not show it to contain a characteristic constituent. We did not consider it necessary to make any investigation.

Lobelia syphilitica has never been officinal, but was recognized by the Pharmacopoeia of the Massachusetts Medical Society, 1808. It is not found in commerce and is not used in domestic medicine.

MEDICAL HISTORY.—We have stated above that Peter Kalm in his travels through North America was informed by Sir William Johnson [Sir William Johnson was born in Smithtown, Ireland, 1715. In 1738 he came to America and located in the south side of Mohawk Valley, about twenty-four miles from Schenectady, N. Y., and embarked in traffic with the Indians whose friendship he managed to secure. He learned their language, studied their customs and won their confidence. He possessed greater influence over them than any other white man, and was adopted into the Mohawk tribe and chosen sachem. In the French war, 1743 to 1748, he was the sole superintendent of the Indians of the frontier; occupied positions of trust in Colonial affairs and embarked with the Indian allies in the wars between England and France. He engaged in the capture of Fort Niagara, 1750, where he had command after Prideaux was killed, and he assisted in the capture of Montreal, 1760. For his service he was awarded a good salary by George II., a baronetcy and $25,000 by Parliament, and a tract of 100,000 acres of land, north of the Mohawk, known as "Kingsland" or the "Royal Grant." This tract of land is now in Herkimer Co. N. Y.
He published a paper on "Customs, Manners and Languages of the Indians. (Phil. Trans. Nov. 1777, p. 143). In 1774 he died.
At some period of his life, (date unknown to us. but before 1751 as he communicated it to Kalm) he purchased from the Indians (or a trader) an asserted remedy for syphilis, which proved to be a species of Lobelia, and the plant was exported to Europe to cure that disease. From this reason the plant received its name Lobelia syphilitica. In this connection we are led to say upon information received from a gentleman, familiar in the neighborhood of "Johnson's Castle," New York, that by tradition the moral standing of Sir William Johnson was not of the highest, and that possibly he may have had use for the plant himself.]
that the Indians used this plant to cure syphilis [Johnson purchased the information from the Indians and its announcement was considered of the greatest importance by the medical world. He was imposed upon, however, and it seems strange that a man so versed in Indian customs should have been thus deceived.] and upon his return to Europe, published an account of it. This introduced the drug to Europe, and it came into immediate demand, and it was illustrated in Woodville's Medical Botany, which was published in the beginning of this century. We cannot find that Johnson made any written reference to the drug, and we have searched his manuscripts upon file in Albany, which comprise a voluminous correspondence on all matters connected with Indian life on the frontier. [These manuscripts in the State's Dep't Albany show the interest and influence Johnson possessed in early Colonial affairs. His aid was solicited by those high in power and he must have had the unbounded confidence of the Indians.] We cannot find a reference in European literature (or any statement beside that of Kalm and we therefore conclude that this information derived personally by Kalm, introduced the plant.

Schoepf, 1787, [Materia Medica Americana, p. 128.] mentioned Lobelia syphilitica, but erroneously described to it, nauseating, cathartic and emetic properties, stating that it is acrid, milky, and used in syphilis. He confused the sensible properties of Lobelia inflata, with which he was evidently familiar, with the reputed medical properties of Lobelia syphilitica. Thus, his statements regarding the uses of Lobelia syphilitica agreed with Kalm, but there is no evidence to show that he did not derive his information from Kalm's writings.

From the return of Kalm (1751) to Europe, until the introduction of Lobelia inflata by Thomson, [See medical history of Lobelia inflata, p. 83.] the drug known as lobelia was the root of Lobelia syphilitica. This is shown by the fact that the decoctions were freely administered, which could not have been the case with a violent emetic like Lobelia inflata. Thus, we quote from Buchan, 1793. [Domcstic Medicine, William Buchan, Edinburgh, p. 515.] "The patient takes a large draught of the decoction early in the morning and continues to use it for his ordinary drink through the day." This name lobelia, led subsequent writers (after Lobelia inflata appeared) to confuse the two plants, and the result is sometimes evidenced at present.

Statements have been made to the effect that Lobelia syphilitica has diuretic properties, but Prof. W. P. C. Barton, 1802, [Collections for a Vegetable Materia Medica, part 2nd, p. 37.] found that the plant then used by the settlers under the name lobelia was Liatris spicala.

Thatcher, 1810, [American New Dispensatory, p. 149.] states on Pearson's word that Lobelia syphilitica has cathartic properties, but it is questionable as to the drug employed.

Rafinesque, 1830, [Medical Flora of the United States, vol. ii., p. 25.] accepts that Lobelia syphilitica is a potent drug, but his views were framed from previous statements. Investigations in Europe demonstrated that Lobelia syphilitica was of no value in the treatment of syphilis and it eventually became obsolete. Neither, the Regular, nor the Eclectic sections of American practitioners of medicine employ it at all, and that it is but little employed in Homoeopathy is evident from the following article:

THE HOMOEOPATHIC USES OF LOBELIA SYPHILITICA.—(Written for this publication by Edwin M. Hale, M.D., Emeritus Professor of Materia Medica and Therapeutics in the Chicago Homoeopathic College.)—This plant was introduced into our practice by the late Dr. Hering. His provings and observations were published in the Trans. Amer. Hom. Institute.

Drs. Jeanes, Williamson and Neidhard, only the latter now living, contributed their experience with this drug. Dr. Jeanes reports a cure of "melancholia" in a woman. He supposed the spleen was affected, for she had "pains under the short ribs of the left side, from front to back." These symptoms are in its provings, and nearly identical symptoms have often been cured by cimicifuga. Dr. Neidhard reported a cough of four weeks duration, day and night, with "dryness of the back part of the throat." He also cured cases appearing to be a species of spinal irritation with sciatica.

Many of its symptoms remind one strongly of cimicifuga, but its chief sphere of action seems to be upon the mucous surfaces of the upper respiratory tract. It causes catarrhal headache, acute nasal catarrh, and much irritation with dryness of the throat. The posterior nares, palate, eyes, nose and mouth are all irritated, much as in hay fever. I would advise it in such cases, and in epidemic influenza, especially in the young. Catarrhal conditions caused by this species, if continued, would readily run into humid asthma.

Rafinesque asserts that its properties are similar to Lobelia inflata, but milder. It resembles arsenious iodide, sticta, hepar sulphur, cistus and cimicifuga. Our tincture is made from the leaves.

Drugs and Medicines of North America, 1884-1887, was written by John Uri Lloyd and Curtis G. Lloyd.