The Poisonous Path: Lobelia

The Poisonous Path: Lobelia

Pake Nielson

The Poisonous Path

As herbalists, we often find ourselves pleasantly lost in research with so many different paths and schools of thought coming together to talk about Medicinal Plants. It’s only right to get lost within the ethos before us. However, when I began studying herbal medicine, there was one path in particular that kept catching my interest: the use of poisonous plants within medicinal and spiritual practices.

Herbs such as Belladonna, Hemlock, Lobelia, Mandrake, and Wolfsbane are all classified by the FDA as toxic, poisonous, harmful, and even deadly. Learning the temperament and condition each plant required for medicinal use becomes daunting. Whether you are a patient or a practitioner, the pressure is on. 

Plants of poisonous property can heal and relieve conditions where other herbs fall short. This is what gives them their value. Not to mention the ceremonial and spiritual uses acclaimed to these powerful herbs. In this blog, we will be discovering the lively and dangerous personalities of each plant along the poisonous path. 

Lobelia inflata

Lobelia inflata is an herb known by many names and many cultures. It has been called everything from pukeweed to vomitwort due to its strong emetic actions. The Cherokee know it as Tsa La or Sah Lol and cultivated medicinal use for this herb as a smokable relaxant and antispasmodic; this, we call Indian Tobacco.

Lobelia inflata grows native in eastern North America, and its trails stretch from Kansas throughout the east coast and up into south-eastern Canada. From July to October, you can find the pale purplish-white blossoms held up by rows of leafy green stocks. Lobelia inflata is part of the Lobeliaceae family, a community of plant species 300 plus strong. And while we have found great uses for this plant, mammals tend to refute it, due to the toxic and un-tasteful constituent alkaloid Lobeline. 

Lobeline is what gives Lobelia its poisonous potential. In fact, many sources claim this alkaloid will induce comas, seizures, abdominal pain, and even death by respiratory paralyzation. However, apart from taking this constituent in purity alone, which would surely be ill-advised, there is no recorded account of the whole herb causing such conditions to any person. 

Medicinal Herbal Use

Lobelia inflata was first introduced to western herbalism by the American Herbalist Sammuel Thomson. A self-taught herbalist and botanist who lived and learned from the plants of 19th century Alstead, New Hampshire. Largely, Lobelia became his legacy, and his “discovery” is what made him both famous and infamous. This, of course, was due to his almost routine use of the potentially poisonous plant Lobelia as a tonic for many and most diseases, which was much the mind of modern medicine at the time. They were looking for the Cure-All, the Elixir of Life per se. An ideal and much-needed distraction from all the bloodletting. 

Today, Lobelia is used medicinally for its ability to support and relax the respiratory system. This makes Lobelia an effective treatment for asthma relief and smoking addictions. Of course, this herb should be adequately controlled when recommended. Finding the correct dosage is best done when under the advising of a medicinal herbal practitioner, such as an herbalist consultant, shamanic practitioner, or naturopathic doctor.

Modern studies continue to explore Lobeline for its ability to benefit those with neurodegenerative disorders. Disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ADHD, depression, and many others. Lobelia and its toxic afflictions have come a long way since Thomson’s “discovery.” However, the indigenous medicine elders found greater understanding and relevance for this herb. 

The Cherokee

The Cherokee are just one of many indigenous peoples who use Lobelia for spiritual and healing ceremonies. Lobelia is offered to ceremonial fire in smudge bundles as Indian tobacco. It is spoken that Lobelia carries our prayers and messages by smoke to the great spirit. The use of these herbs was done during special healing and cultural rituals, serving a greater purpose and spirit to nature. 

Considered to be a part of the Sacred Power Plants, Lobelia is one of many shamanic herbs which are now branded by the Greek word Entheogens, meaning “to realize the divine within.” It should be known that Entheogens are psychoactive and psychedelic substances that alter consciousness in mood, recognition, behavior, and or ability. As such, using Lobelia for its sacred properties is only advisable when guided by an antecedent spiritual leader, such as an indigenous shaman or medicine elder. 

Thank You

As herbalists, we use Lobelia inflata for its herbal actions and medicinal properties, to which we owe the indigenous cultures more recognition, than that of the 19th-century root doctors. It’s from such deeply cultivated sources of wisdom that we continue to progress western medicine and enrich western herbalism. And I for one would like to say thank you for the lessons and teachings. 

To all my readers, thank you for walking The Poisonous Path this month. And as we continue down this route, please watch your step as there are many toxic thorns and thistles along the way.

Back to blog