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The first time I encountered lobelia (Lobelia inflata) was while I was studying with herbalist Rosemary Gladstar. It was one of the herbs I was learning about, both through book knowledge and through taste. My mother was taking the course with me, so she and my father were tasting it, as well. They drank a bit too much of their lobelia tea with predictable results: They vomited.
One Plant, Many Uses
While lobelia can make you sick in too large of doses, there are seemingly unlimited uses for this delicate plant if taken in just the right amount. It’s very easy to pigeonhole healing plants to one or two uses, forgetting to look at them for any additional benefit or value, and I did this with lobelia. In my house, it became an important emetic for my first-aid kit, but lobelia also happens to be an important and powerful antispasmodic. One or two drops of lobelia tincture will stop hiccups—immediately! This was a great discovery for me, which may sound silly, but if you’ve ever suffered from hiccups that seem to go on and on without relief, it’s amazing to know a more reliable remedy than drinking a cup of water upside down, holding a teaspoon of sugar under your tongue or any of the other crazy home remedies people have tried with dubious results.
Because of its antispasmodic qualities, lobelia is a must-have during cold and flu season. I like to add just a bit to my tea or syrup recipes to relieve coughing or sneezing. It’s also an absolute necessity for those who suffer from serious asthma. Two to three drops of tincture given in about two ounces of water can act as an emergency bronchodilator.
There are a number of lobelia species throughout the country, so you’re likely to have come upon one of them. United Plant Savers lists Lobelia inflata as a “To Watch” species because it has the potential for decline. It grows in waste areas, showing up after the ground has been damaged. It’s a self-seeding annual in the wild, and those who wildcraft it take the aboveground portion before the seed sets, when the leaves are green. You can, of course, see the problem if we all take patches of an annual before it has a chance to set seed. It’s still possible to wildcraft this plant, we just need to be sure to leave some of the plants in a stand so they can reseed the patch for next year.
Grow Your Own
Lobelia inflata is a short, delicate, white-flowered plant. It likes full sun, but can tolerate some shade. It isn’t showy, so in the native flower garden, you’ll want to mix it in with some other plants that have more shape and bulk. Seeds and plants can be readily obtained from responsible native-plant nurseries. We recently discovered a nursery in Minnesota that is growing with great integrity called Prairie Moon. They were gracious enough to allow me to use their photograph of Lobelia inflata for my next book, Heal Local, coming out in June.
Think about giving a space in your garden for this beautiful native plant. It has an important and rich place in our country’s medical history and most likely has more to offer for our future than we know.
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