Indian Tobacco – Lobelia Inflata: Medicinal Uses of the Smoking Cessation Herb of Wild Plants

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Indian tobacco (lobelia inflata) has yet to be renamed, but I imagine it will be decolonized in the future. Another less common name for it is “wild tobacco”. I was going to cover cardinal flower this month, a showier, bright-red close relation. But usage-wise our title plant is stronger. It’s considered toxic yet has medicinal uses.

Lobelias are in the harebell family along with a few bellflowers hereabouts. Around Algonquin park, all four lobelias present are native.

Indian/”wild tobacco” (l. inflata) is uncommon in Algonquin park, but around Haliburton it’s common. Any given year, I typically see a plant here and there while hiking the trails. The folks behind Haliburton Flora spotted it on roadsides, in mixed forests and open rocky terrain.

Indian Tobacco - Lobelia Inflata
Indian Tobacco – Lobelia Inflata

Water lobelia (l. dortmanna) is also common here in shallow waters like small lakes. The bright red cardinal flower (l. cardinalis), which likes to be near water, is rare to common throughout cottage country. Around Haliburton it’s less common, but there are pockets of lush cardinal flower on the banks and edges of some rivers and streams and the odd beaver pond. The biggest patch I’ve seen nearby was in South Algonquin near Elephant Lake Rd., on the path to one of the many local “High Falls”. We’re still planning to cover cardinal flower in a feature of its own.

Great blue lobelia (l. siphilitica) is also native to Ontario, although easier to find in the south. While you’d be hard-pressed to find great blue lobelia in the wild here, it will grow around Haliburton county.

There are a few more rare species of lobelia present in Ontario. And there is one introduced, nonnative “garden lobelia” (l. erinus), which was silly to import when we already have the stunners great blue and cardinal.

Note that nicotiana quadrivalvis, a true tobacco, shares the common name Indian tobacco.

Indian Tobacco is Not Edible

This herb is sometimes called “puke weed” for good reason. It’s toxic and while a med-large dose will make you puke, an overdose can actually kill you. The root is the most toxic part.

Indian Tobacco - Lobelia Inflata along a trail in open woods
Indian Tobacco – Lobelia Inflata along a trail in open woods

Medicinal Uses of Indian Tobacco

Indian tobacco is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Digestive
  • Integumentary
  • Muscular
  • Respiratory
  • Urinary

Medicinal tags include Anthelmintic, Antispasmodic, Diaphoretic, Diuretic, Emetic, Expectorant, Nervine, Sedative and Simulant. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes careful prescription by professional herbalists as a smoking cessation aid (although formally unproven) and for respiratory support.

L. inflata has alkaloids with a similar taste and action to cultivated tobacco. It’s used in mixes for smoking cessation and to treat spasmodic coughs and asthma attacks, especially attacks related to smoke inhalation. It has earned the folk name “asthma weed”. Alternatives you can use without professional supervision include hyssop, thyme and violet.

A great part of its usefulness is due to the alkaloid lobeline which relaxes smooth muscle tissues. Large doses will relax the whole system, perhaps in a frightening way, and overdose is possible. Oral or topical mixes are prescribed in modest doses. It could be mixed with something like peppermint essential oil in an anti-cramping topical salve for muscle cramps, menses cramping, or angina.

There are many more conditions in which wild tobacco may show up in an an herbal treatment, from stomachaches to poison ivy rashes to urinary and gallbladder stone issues. It’s the dosage that makes it safe, or not.

Guilty or likely not, it was cited for more than a dozen deaths in the 1540s. That’s back when the “Herbalist Charter” edict from Henry the VIII was used to prosecute botanic practitioners.

Alternative Uses of Wild Tobacco

Smoke from the burning leaves acts as an insecticide.

Growing Lobelia Inflata

You have a few options regarding lobelia spp. for native landscaping. I love the bright blue perennial great blue lobelia and the bright red cardinal flower around small ponds and in rain gardens (both pictured below). The title lobelia doesn’t need it so wet. It’ll grow even in partial shade and waste places. It has been available from But since it’s an annual or biennial you’ll need to keep replanting it.

Native lobelia spp. will add a lot of wildlife value to your landscaping as well as pretty flowers. Here are first year cardinal flower rosettes:

Cardinal Flower - Lobelia Cardinalis rosettes
Cardinal Flower – Lobelia Cardinalis rosettes

The second year produced the bright red flowers pictured below, a hummingbird favourite! It’s a short-lived perennial, and like purple spotted bee balm you’ll have to replant after a few years or continuously sow it.

Great blue lobelia is a perennial, so it’ll come back every year and will need divided on occasion. You could share divisions with friends. 🙂

Here are both cardinal flower (left) and great blue lobelia (right), around my Pond 2, so you can see how stunning these species are:

Cardinal Flower - Lobelia Cardinalis
Cardinal Flower – Lobelia Cardinalis
Great Blue Lobelia - Lobelia Siphilitica
Great Blue Lobelia – Lobelia Siphilitica

If you’ve included these in your landscaping, I’d love to see your pictures! Well, I’d love to see any pictures of native landscaping. 😉 Feel free to share!


Avoid use if pregnant or diagnosed with hypertension.

The USDA labels it as poisonous and misuse can be fatal.

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes

Planting the Future: Saving Our Medicinal Herbs

The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine

The Herb Book: The Most Complete Catalog of Herbs Ever Published (Dover Cookbooks)

Indian Herbalogy of North America: The Definitive Guide to Native Medicinal Plants and Their Uses

The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal: A Safe and Practical Guide to Making and Using Herbal Remedies

Reader’s Digest Magic and Medicine of Plants

Mi’kmaq Medicines (2nd edition): Remedies and Recollections

Herbal Therapeutics: Specific Indications for Herbs & Herbal Formulas (8th Edition)

Herbal Medic: A Green Beret’s Guide to Emergency Medical Preparedness and Natural First Aid 1st Edition

The Herbal Apothecary: 100 Medicinal Herbs and How to Use Them

Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine: 550 Herbs and Remedies for Common Ailments

The Earthwise Herbal, Volume II: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants

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