Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata)

This is by far our most common lobelia, a close relative both of the little blue lobelias that dangle from our hanging baskets and the stately Cardinal Flowers that adorn our perennial gardens. It likes an open woodland or the shady margin of a meadow, but it will also spring up in the middle of a sunny lawn given half a chance. The flowers are pale blue, often almost white. The species name inflata refers to the puffed-up seedpods that develop after the flowers.

The plant in this picture was blooming in early August in a shady lawn in Mount Lebanon.

The name “Indian Tobacco” comes from the fact that certain Indian tribes smoked the stuff, in which practice they were imitated by some of the English colonists. All accounts say the taste and stench are at least as foul as those of real tobacco. It is, as Gray points out, poisonous, and regrettably still “a noted quack medicine” today.

Lobelias are placed in their own family Lobeliaceae by Gray, but most modern botanists place them in the family Campanulaceae, the Bellflower Family, often as a subfamily called Lobelioideae.

Gray describes the genus and the species:

LOBELIA [Plumier] L. Calyx 6-cleft, with a short tube. Corolla with a straight tube split down on the (apparently) upper side, somewhat 2-lipped; the upper lip of 2 rather erect lobes, the lower lip spreading and 3-cleft. Two of the anthers in our species bearded at the top. Pod 2-celled, many-seeded, opening at the top. — Flowers axillary or chiefly in bracted racemes; in summer and early autumn. (Dedicated to Matthias de l’Obel, an early Flemish herbalist.)

Flowers blue, or blue variegated with white.

Flowers smaller (corolla-tube not more than 4-8 mm. long).

Stem leafy, often paniculately branched; flowers loosely racemose; sinuses of calyx not appendaged; annual or biennial.

Leaves ovate or oblong, obtusely toothed; pod inflated, wholly inferior.

L. inflàta L. (INDIAN TOBACCO.) Stems paniculately much branched from an annual root, pubescent with spreading hairs, 3-8 dm. high; leaves gradually diminishing into leaf-like bracts, which exceed the lower short-pediceled flowers; calyx-tube ovoid; corolla only 3-4 mm. long. — Dry open fields and thickets. — Plant poisonous and a noted quack medicine.

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