A cheerful little herb for sunny areas with good moisture. Lobelia is a go to herb for those suffering from asthma hence its common name of Asthma weed. Its an unusual annual in that it grows a rosette of leaves in the fall of year one that overwinters then the plant grows and blooms in the second year, more like a biennial than an annual. However if sown in spring it may quickly grow and bolt to flower and seed in the first year. However plants tend to be small and spindly and don't have much substance. Its an easy 'annual' to grow but needs just a little more thought than most do. The flowers are small but in large groups can be quite impressive and the pollinators and butterflies love them. Deer and Rabbits don't eat it.
Description of Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata).
Indian Tobacco is not related to true tobacco but is a Lobelia. Its an unusual annual in that it begins to grow the summer or fall before and overwinters as a small rosette of leaves and springs up from this in the late spring. In sunny locations Lobelia grows to about 2 feet (61 cm) in height and is a much branched bushy plant. In shady areas on richer soils it can grow to 3 feet (91 cm) or more and is more slender and less branching. The stems are stiff and support leaves up to 2½" long (6.3 cm) arranged alternately on the stem, they are lanceolate to ovate in shape and crenate or bluntly dentate along the margins. The lower leaves have very short stalks while the upper ones are sessile or 'stuck to the stem' and all have prominent veins. From the tops of the stems appear the flower spikes that can be about half the height of the plant. These stalks have small pairs of leaves at intervals and these each produce a single flower. Each flower is up to 1/3" (8 mm.) 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. Flowers bloom from lower bracts first and progress up the stem to the top. Flowering begins in mid summer and will continue until frost. All plants will begin flowering at the same time no matter what size they are. It may only be 2" (5 cm) tall but it will flower. The flowers are followed by globular seed capsules that turn brown as they ripen. Plants will usually continue to grow and flower until frost hits them. In warmer areas lobelia will eventually stop flowering and die leaving tall stems of globular capsules as winter interest. The plant is hardy to zone 4 above this mulching and care needs to be taken with overwintering rosettes.
Growing Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata) from Seed.
While most people consider Lobelia as an annual its really biennial as you sow Lobelia seed this year for it to flower next year. It's a strange annual that will germinate this year and create a small rosette of leaves that overwinter then it will flower next year. Some state that if its direct seeded this year it will bolt and flower rapidly in the same season, which is why its considered an annual. However the plants produced are smaller and don't have a lot of substance. For more enjoyable and prolific plants waiting until the next season for flowering is best.
While many suggest you should sow lobelia during the summer and early fall ready for overwintering if sown inside they can be started in spring, raised in small pots and set out during the summer or fall ready to overwinter. We find this method preferable as its not always easy to remember to sow seed during the summer when so much else is going on. We have good results just treating them like any other plant.
Many also suggest that some stratification is required to get seeds to germinate, we have found this beneficial producing larger numbers of germinated seeds but many will still germinate without stratification. See our stratification instructions for more details and choosing the best method for your needs.
Seeds require light to germinate so do not cover seeds. Germination can be slightly erratic even so.
Seeds are very small so sow in tiny cell trays or regular seed trays and treat as any other plant. See our general growing instructions for more details on sowing.
Once seeds have germinated transfer them to their own small pots and grow on. Keep seedlings moist and allow the rosette to grow to at least 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter or more before setting out in the garden. Don't set out on hot sunny days, its preferable to plant on cloudy day before rain is due. This way the plants become accustomed to the soil and get watered in well.
Keep plants watered until winter then just keep weeded until next spring when plants will grow rapidly and flower.
If desired seeds can be direct sown in early late summer and encouraged to create a rosette for next years planting. This method is fairly easy but as the seeds are small its harder to keep weeds off as the seeds are germinating and depending on your zone the rosettes may not reach much size before winter. Surface sprinkle seeds do not cover
as they need light to germinate.
Location and Care of Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata).
Full sun to slight shade is required, in zones 8 and warmer some shade can be provided but full sun in all other zones. For best results provide a rich most soil and for best results needs a good water supply. Using a soaker hose amongst the plants to give them a little water each day is ideal. Space plants about 12-18" (30-46 cm). Lobelia will grow in almost any soil type and even tolerate dry soils but the plants will be stunted and not produce as many flowers. While the flowers are not that showy if planted in groups the combination can be more impressive.
Harvesting Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata).
The whole above ground portion of the plant can be harvested best when the lower flowers have begun to form seeds but the top flowers have yet to open.
Medical uses of Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata).
Lobelia is a very impressive herb that is used a lot to treat asthma (hence its common name of Asthma weed). The main constituent lobeline acts as a muscle relaxant which is great after too much exercise and muscles have tighten up. The Lobeline helps the body to relax and promote better blood circulation. Thus its use in pulmonary disorders especially asthma, pneumonia, whooping cough, pleurisy and bronchitis helping to stimulating breathing and loosening phlegm. It can also help to ease stomach cramps and other body tensions. It is used as a as well as nervine and some studies have show it will help with seizure prevention and neuron protection in those with Parkinson's disease.
Lobelia will work on the nicotine receptors as a nicotine antagonist although it contains no nicotine, so it is often used to help those the nicotine addiction and as a tobacco substitute (hence its name Indian tobacco).
Lobelia may increase blood pressure so should not be used in people with high blood pressure or heart disease. Care should be taken if using for asthma not to discontinue other medications before knowing how lobelia will affect you. Pregnant and breastfeeding women may want to avoid this.
Overdosing on Lobelia is difficult as larger doses cause nausea and vomiting. While there are some claims that Lobelia is a poison and has caused deaths these claims are not true but sadly continue to be perpetuated without bothering to research the history of these claims.
Other uses of Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata)
When burnt this plant is said to be an effective bug repellent.
Indian Tobacco, Asthma Weed, tabac indien, indianischer Tabak, Lobelie, lobelia, tabaco-indiano, hierba del asma, tabaco indio Rapuntium inflatum, Pukeweed, Gagroot, Vomitwort, and Bladderpod.
Dortmannia inflata. Lobelia michauxii. Rapuntium inflatum. Rapuntium michauxii