Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata)
Dortmannia inflata (L.) Kuntze
Lobelia inflata forma albiflora Moldenke
Lobelia inflata var. simplex Millsp.
Lobelia michauxii Nutt.
Rapuntium inflatum (L.) Mill.
Rapuntium michauxii (Nutt.) C.Presl
CONFIRMATION STATUS: Pending confirmation.
TAXONOMY: The currently accepted scientific name of Indian tobac-
co is Lobelia inflata L. Not withstanding the common name, the foliage
of Indian tobacco should be neither chewed nor smoked as it is highly
acrid and toxic. While Indian tobacco is an annual, other Lobelia spp.
(Lobelias) can be perennials. Indian tobacco resembles Lobelia spicata
(pale-spiked lobelia), but the latter has slightly larger flowers (up to ½"
long) and its stems have shorter hairs or they are glabrous. Indian tobac-
co is distinctive because its calyxes become conspicuously inflated from
the developing seed capsules; this makes it relatively easy to identify.
The calyxes of other Lobelias don't inflate after the corollas of their flow-
ers have withered away.
NATIVE STATUS: Native, United States and Canada.
GENERAL BOTANICAL DESCRIPTION:
Habit: This native plant is a summer annual about ½ to 2½' tall and more
or less erect. It is unbranched, or branches occasionally in the upper half.
The angular stems have bristly white hairs; these hairs are less abundant
on the upper stems.
Leaves: The alternate leaves are up to 2½" long and 1" across, becoming
smaller as they ascend the stems. They are lanceolate to ovate in shape
and crenate or bluntly dentate along the margins. The upper surface of
each leaf is largely hairless, while the lower surface has a few hairs along
the major veins. The lower leaves have short petioles, while the upper
leaves are sessile.
Flowers: The central stem terminates in a spike-like raceme of flowers that
extends to about one-half the length of the plant. Some of the upper side
stems may terminate in shorter racemes. Each raceme has alternate leafy
bracts that are similar in appearance to the leaves below, except that they
are smaller. A single flower develops from the base of each bract on a short
petiole; usually a few flowers are in bloom at the same time. Each flower is
up to 1/3" long; it consists of a tubular corolla with 5 spreading lobes and a
short tubular calyx with 5 teeth that are long and spreading. The corolla is
light blue-violet, light purple, or white. It has a cleft upper lip consisting of
2 small lobes and a cleft lower lip consisting of 3 lobes that are somewhat
larger. The interior of the corolla is primarily white; its lower interior has 2
small yellow patches and tufts of fine white hair. There is no noticeable
Fruit/Seeds: After the corolla withers away, a globoid seed capsule dev-
elops that is about 1/3" across. This capsule is completely enclosed by the
persistent green calyx. There are several conspicuous ribs along the sides
of this calyx. The seed capsule is divided into 2 cells and contains numer-
ous tiny seeds; these seeds are small enough to be blown about by the wind.
Roots: The root system consists of a taproot.
REGENERATION PROCESS: Indian tobacco propogates itself by re-
HABITAT TYPES: Habitats include open deciduous woodlands, savan-
nas, thickets, areas along woodland paths, powerline clearances in wooded
areas, partially shaded seeps, and abandoned fields. This species prefers
reas with a history of disturbance, particularly when this removes some of
the overhead canopy in wooded areas. It is somewhat weedy.
SITE CHARACTERISTICS: Indian tobacco prefers partial sun, moist
to dry conditions, and a soil that contains loam, clay loam, or rocky mater-
ial. Poor soil is readily tolerated, although this will stunt the growth of the
SEASONAL DEVELOPMENT: The blooming period occurs from mid-
summer through the fall and lasts about 2-3 months.
GENERAL DISTRIBUTION: This plant is found in open woods or
sometimes in gardens as weeds from the West Coast to Minnesota, south
to Georgia and Mississippi.
SKY MEADOWS DISTRIBUTION: To be determined.
IMPORTANCE AND USES: The nectar of the flowers attracts small
bees, mainly Halictid bees. Hummingbirds are also attracted to the nectar
but the tiny seeds appear to be of little interest to birds.While young seed-
lings are occassionally browsed by deer and other grazing animals, the
acrid foliage is highly toxic and as the plant matures, is avoided by mam-
malian herbivores, including white-tailed deer.
The root of this plant was used by the Iroquois to treat venereal ulcers,
nd legs sores. The leaves were smashed and applied as a poultice to treat
an abscess at the side of the neck. The plant was used to counteract sick-
ness produced by witchcraft. The Cherokee mashed the roots of Indian
tobacco and used them as a poultice for body aches. The leaves were rub-
bed on sores, aches, stiff necks, and chapped places. The Crow used the
plant in religious ceremonies.
Indian tobacco is also used by herbalists for treatment of asthma, hence
its other nickname, asthma weed. Some make ointments of the plant to
It is also said that plant material is burned as a natural bug repellent to
keep away insects such as mosquitoes.
Crooked Run Valley