Classif.Nat. Order of Lobelides. Syngenesia monogamia L.
Genus LOBELIA. Calyx superior, five cleft. Corolla monopetalous, irregular, five cleft, tube cleft on one side, five stamina, epigyuous, monadelphous, and syngenesious, one style and stigma, capsule two or three celled, cells opening by pores, many minute seeds.
Sp. Lobelia inflata. L. Branching and hairy, leaves sessile, ovate, denticulate, flowers in slender racemes, axillary to oblong bracts, capsules swelled.
Description. Biennial plant, one or two feet high, stem milky, erect, ramose, flexuose, subangular, hirsute; leaves alternate, oval or oblong, acute, sessile, or semi-amplexicaule, unequally serrate or toothed, pubescent, racemes of flowers terminal, erect, foliose; flowers remote, each nearly sessile and axillary to a bract, somewhat similar to the leaves, but smaller, the upper ones smallest; lower flowers pedunculated; ovary swelled, oval, globose; calyx with five unequal subulate divisions; corolla small blue. Capsule crowned by the calix, swelled, striated, two-celled, full of very minute seeds.
History. The genus Lobelia is dedicated to Lobel, an old botanist. It contains a great variety of species, fifteen of which grow in the United States; many are handsome ornamental plants. This species is not such, but has very important qualities. It grows all over the United States in fields and woods, blossoming from July to November; the flowers are very small, but singular; when broken, a milky acrid juice is emitted; the root is fibrous, yellowish white, acrid and nauseous: it is biennial, throwing out the first year only a few radical roundish leaves. When horses and cattle eat it, they are salivated, producing what is commonly called the Slavers, which debilitates them, and for which cabbage leaves are said to be a remedy. I was informed that some horses eat it on purpose to medicate themselves; several Euphorbias produce the same effect. It produces many varieties, such as—1. Simplex. 2. Elatior. 3. Albiflora. 4. Angustifolia, &c.
Properties. One of the most powerful and efficient emetic, narcotic, expectorant, anti-spasmodic, sudorific, diuretic, anti-asthmatic, and sialagogue. It contains an acrid principle, caoutchouc, and extractive, according to Dr. Bigelow. In its effects it acts very much like tobacco, but the action is more speedy, diffusible, and short; besides, affecting even those who are accustomed to tobacco. The herbalist, Samuel Thompson, claims in his guide of health to have discovered the properties of this plant towards 1790; but the Indians knew some of them; it was one of their puke weeds, used by them to clear the stomach and head in their great councils. Its medical properties have since been confirmed and elucidated by Doctors Cutler, Dorsey, Thatcher, Bigelow, Barton, Bradstreet, Randall, Eberle, &c. It is now extensively used, although many physicians consider it as a deleterious narcotic, uncertain and dangerous in practice: while Thompson denies it, and considers it as harmless, depending almost altogether upon it in his new and singular practice of medicine, borrowed chiefly from the steaming and puking practice of the Indian tribes. The whole plant is used, but the most powerful part are the seeds, as in Hyosciamus. The medical effects are speedy and very powerful, but various, according to the preparations, doses, and temperaments. In large doses, it is a deadly narcotic, like tobacco and henbane, producing alarming symptoms, continual vomiting, trembling, cold sweat, and even death. It appears to act upon the brain rather than the stomach, as usual with narcotics, and is therefore dangerous in practice, unless prescribed with great care and caution. In strong doses it produces great relaxation, giddiness, head-ache, debility, and perspiration; in moderate doses it causes sickness in the stomach and vomiting, a prickly sensation through the whole system, acting therefore on the nervous system, and being a very diffusible stimulant of it.
It has been recommended in some shape or other for almost every disease; but those for which it is most efficient are spasmodic asthma, bronchial cough, tetanus or lockjaw, and strangulated hernia. In asthma particularly, it appears to be almost a specific, although it has failed in some cases when the disease was not spasmodic; it has lately been introduced in Europe as a remedy for this complaint, and with decided advantage. It must be used in that case until it produces nausea and vomiting, while for the other diseases, it is better to give small doses, frequently repeated; it avails thus for pneumonia and cough caused by accumulated mucus in the bronchias. For hernia, it is given in injection, like tobacco, which produces a complete relaxation, when the hernia can easily be reduced. Its effects in croup, rheumatism, dyspepsia, hooping-cough, catarrh, leucorhea, &c. are more doubtful: although in catarrh it appears to act like squill and antimony. Schoepf mentions it only as astringent and useful in opthalmia, but probably by mistake. It has no cathartic effect, as once asserted. Thatcher has given a case of hydrophobia cured by it in the last stage; this deserves attention, as the plant, by its effects on the mouth and system, appears calculated to avail in this fatal disease; but the subject has not yet been properly pursued. The practice of Thompson to use it in every thing, fevers, consumption, measles, jaundice, &c. is preposterous. It is not even a proper emetic for common use, as we have so many much milder. In consumption it is baneful, because it prostrates the patient without relieving the symptoms. It is, however, the base of many quack medicines for consumption, which are violent and dangerous; they are erroneously called Indian specifics, the Indians having no specific for the disease, but only palliatives.
This plant loses its active properties by boiling or even scalding. It must be used in substance or tincture; the seeds and young leaves are strongest; the whole plant is commonly collected in the fall when in seed, and pulverised. One single grain is sometimes sufficient to produce emesis, while a moderate dose is said to be about ten grains of the powder. A tea spoon full of the tincture is the usual dose; when made with the seeds it is more efficient, and Mr. Cannon has told me that a single dose has cured the lockjaw, by relaxing instantly the jaws and the whole system; it must be poured by the sides of the mouth. One pound of the plant is directed to be infused in a gallon of diluted alcohol. The aqueous cold infusion is equally good. I consider the best and most available use of this plant to be in all nervous diseases, fits, convulsions, spasms, asthma, tetanus, St. Vitus' dance, and perhaps hydrophobia. I venture to recommend its trial in all these disorders, but not to depend upon it in any other.
The other species of this genus ought to be investigated; some, by their taste, appear to have properties somewhat similar, but milder, and thus perhaps are preferable; such are the Lobelia siphilitica, L. cardinalis, L. claytoniana, &c. The two first named have already attracted some attention; they are called blue and red Cardinal Flowers, and are handsome ornamental plants. They are figured by W. Barton fig. 47 and 53.
L. siphilitica has large blue flowers in a foliose spike, calyx with reflexed sinusses and oblong leaves; common in woods and roads. It has been analyzed in France, and found to contain a new substance similar to butter, sugar, mucilage, and malates, besides traces of amarine, silex, iron, muriate and phosphate of lime, lignin, &c. It is a lactecent, acrid, and nauseous plant also, which has been deemed long ago to be diuretic, repellent, cathartic, emetic, and anti-siphilitic; but its properties are rather similar to L. inflala, although less active; it is chiefly sudorific and diuretic, and its properties ace not so easily destroyed by heat, since it is used in decoction and extract. The root has been chiefly used instead of the plant; dose, five to twenty grains of the extract in dropsy. The Northern Indians used it for the cure of syphilis, in conjunction with Prunus and Podophyllum, and in strong decoction, washing also the ulcers with it, and sprinkling them with the powder of Ceanothus; but it has failed in the hands of physicians, and only availed in some cases of gonorrhea, acting then as a diuretic. Henry recommends to unite to it Geranium maculatum and willow bark as astringents. It disagrees with the stomach, and often causes griping, purging, and vomiting.
L. cardinalis has large scarlet flowers in a long naked raceme, leaves oval lanceolate, acuminate at both ends. Found near streams and marshes. The taste is similar to L. inflata. The root has chiefly been employed in decoction by the Cherokee Indians in syphilis, and against worms. It is said to be equivalent to Spigelia or pinkroot. These properties deserve further inquiry, as the whole genus Lobelia appears to be more or less medical with us; the other species have not yet been tried: one species (perhaps L. claytoniana) is said to be used as a mild diuretic in Carolina.
Medical Flora, or Manual of the Medical Botany of the United States of North America, Vol. 2, 1830, was written by C. S. Rafinesque.