Indian Tobacco – Native Wildflower Profile

Indian Tobacco (Lobelia Inflata) is an annual, or biannual wildflower native to Eastern and Central North America.   It isn’t a plant that most people would cultivate in their garden, as it isn’t exactly ‘showy’.  But, if you are reading this then you are probably wondering what that little green plant is that has tiny whitish-flowers on it, that resembles Cardinal Flower or the Great Blue Lobelia blooms.  It is Indian Tobacco, a common, almost weedy plant in flower beds, but welcome in wildflower gardens or micro-prairies.  This really isn’t a landscaping plant.  But one day I noticed the short plant tiny white/purple flower and was intrigued.  So, I thought others might share my curiosity and figured I would right a short article on this plant.

As with most plants that can be considered ‘weedy’, Lobelia Inflata can grow in seemingly any condition as long as sunlight is present.  In my yard and flower beds, I find random plants popping up all over.  I generally don’t mind them as long as they aren’t in the front flower beds (that we try to keep manicured).  Each plant will produce a whole lot of seed, so if you don’t want more the next year you need to remove it before the seed capsules form.

 Facts

  • Is a member of the bellflower family
  • Attracts short tongued bees
  • Grows 1-3 feet tall (30-90 cm) in almost any soil
  • Although now known to be toxic, it was used by Native Americans medicinally (you shouldn’t consume any part of this plant)
  • Contains the compound Lobeline, which has been used as a smoking cessation aid by pharmaceutical companies

Physical Description

Similar to other Lobelia species, Indian Tobacco will grow between 1-3′ tall depending on growing conditions.  This plant seems to grow very well in almost any soil, which I’ve noticed can be a common trait among annual plants.lobelia inflata indian tobacco

Stalk / Stem

The stalk typically does not have branches except possibly at the upper portion.  There are small hairs along the stalk at the lower half.

Leaves

The leaves are ovate or elliptical, and are generally 2″ long by 1″ wide.  The leaves will be alternate along the stalk, meaning that they will not be at the same height, but distributed individually alternating up the stalk.  I’ve noticed that the leaves tend to curl or are wavy.  Also, the edges of the leaves are serrated or bumpy, not smooth.

lobelia inflata indian tobacco leaf
Note how the alternate leaves seem to cup or curl up

Flower

The flower of Lobelia Inflata is very tiny, generally only being 1/4″ (6 mm) long and tubular.  If you are familiar with other Lobelia species you will recognize the structure quite quickly.  It will have 5 lobes / petals, two sticking up and 3 down.  With the bottom middle petal almost resembling a tongue sticking out of an open mouth.  It is very distinct, and once you can make a mental image of it you can at least partially identify almost all Lobelia species, or know what reference to look at to get a quick identification.

Root

Lobelia inflata will have a small taproot.

Growing Conditions

Most references say it prefers partial sun and moist loam.  I see it mostly growing in full sun, in poor clay soil.  It doesn’t seem to matter if it is a dry year or wet year, I always have this plant popping up in our backyard micro-prairie or even our vegetable garden.

Growing at the border of my lawn and micro-prairie

How to care  for Indian Tobacco

You don’t really need to do much to keep this plant alive.  Just don’t pull it!  But seriously, use your judgement on watering.  If the ends of the leaves are brown/crispy, then the plant should be watered.

Maintenance

There isn’t much to do for maintenance, as this is an annual flower that can grow almost anywhere.  But if you don’t want more of them, just remove the plant or snip the stalk just after flowering and dispose of it in the trash.  Lobelias produce tons of seed, so a single plant can make a large seed bank.

How to Establish

Growing this plant from seed should be pretty easy.  The tiny seeds of Lobelia need light to germinate, and moisture.  I would sprinkle seed in a disturbed area of my garden in late winter / early Spring.  You could also just sprinkle seed on top of some potting soil in small pots.  Then, set the pots outside and keep moist (not wet) in a location that will receive morning sun. Do these steps in Early March, and you will probably have germination in May/June.  Transplant young seedlings where you want them, and then you probably don’t need to do much else to keep a healthy population for years to come.

lobelia inflata indian tobacco seed pod
Seed pods/packets of Lobelia Inflata

Garden Uses

The only garden use I can see for this would be in a wildflower, meadow garden, or a micro-prairie.  It just isn’t a showy flower, as the blooms are very tiny and there aren’t a lot of them.  Although it can be considered a weed in a well manicured flowerbed, it would be just fine in a ‘wild area’.  Since it is native, I would rather have this growing than some invasive species such as Garlic Mustard or Nutsedge.  So, go ahead and let this plant live.  It doesn’t get too big, doesn’t ‘take over’ areas, and does benefit our environment as it is pollinated by short-tongued bees.

If in a wild area, it can blend right in while providing some positive benefit for pollinators.

How To Make a Micro-Prairie

Fauna

This plant is mainly pollinated by short tongued bees.  I’ve not noticed butterflies or large bumble bees visit it.

Pests and diseases

I’ve never really seen any damage to this plant from disease.  It is very toxic to mamals, so deer and rabbits don’t seem to eat it.

Is Lobelia Inflata edible?

You should not consume Lobelia Inflata / Indian Tobacco.  It is toxic, and could result in death if consumed in large quantities.  Native Americans used this plant medicinally.  Primarily the cherokee [1] and Iroquois [2] used it to treat a number of ailments.

The Cherokee rubbed the root on themselves for body aches, sores, and boils.  They also used a tincture for colic prevention and croup, as well as other respiratory ailments.  Additionally they burnt the leaves to generate smoke to drive away gnats and other insects.

The Iroquois would use this plant to induce vomiting, cure tobacco and whiskey use.  It was also used as a cold infusion, crushed roots would be to treat venereal disease.  And finally, it could be used as a “love or anti love” medicine [2 – p 454].

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indian tobacco native plant profile

References

[1] – Cherokee plants and their uses: a 400 year history, Paul B. Hamel & Mary U. Chiltoskey, Sylva, N. C.: Herald Pub. Co.. 1975. ix, 207 p. ill.

[2] – Herrick, James William, 1977, Iroquois Medical Botany, State University of New York, Albany, PhD Thesis, page 454

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