Indian tobacco is an herbaceous annual plant native to North America. Known botanically as Lobelia inflata, it can be found growing wild in moist wooded and open habitats primarily in the Eastern United States.
Indian tobacco grows approximately 36 inches tall in clumps that are 12 inches wide. It forms flowers on spikes that are characteristic of the Lobelia genus as the petals are fused to form a tube that has two lobes on top and three lobes on the bottom. The color of the flower comes in a range of white, blue, and purple, as well as white with purple tinges along the inside of the flower. When the flowers are pollinated, the ovary swells up and takes on the appearance of an inflated bag or purse, which gave rise to the botanical name of L. inflata.
While pretty to look at in a woodland garden setting, this plant has a history of uses and is still used both medicinally and as an herb today. Its common name of “Indian tobacco” is named for the Native Americans who smoked the herb as a remedy for asthma as observed by the European settlers. Since then, Indian tobacco has also been used as an herbal remedy for a number of other ailments including bronchitis, cough, as a muscle relaxant, and skin infections. It was also prescribed by doctors of the 19th century to patients to induce vomiting as a method of cleansing the body of toxins. Based on the remedies that employed Indian tobacco, this herb earned a number of other common names that include Pukeweed, Asthma weed, Gag root, and Vomit root.
Lobeline, the active ingredient found in Indian tobacco, is similar in action to nicotine and has been used as a substitute for smoking cigarettes. It has also been used as a method to quit smoking as it has been observed that individuals who have smoked Indian tobacco have less dopamine release. This finding has led to theories of using lobeline to treat methamphetamine and opioid (heroin, morphine) addicts as the lobeline helps prevent dopamine release and prevents the chemicals from binding to the receptors that create the euphoric sensations associated with these drugs. Despite its history as a remedy for a number of ailments, this herb is considered potentially toxic and should only be used as recommended by a physician. Women who are pregnant or nursing should stay clear from any Indian tobacco products.
Indian tobacco can be grown as a woodland ornamental in gardens in a full sun to part sun exposure where it will also receive adequate moisture. Although considered an annual, it will some times behave as a biennial in climates where winters are mild.