Thursday, September 22, 2011

Great Blue Lobelia

...right after photographing the Red-legged Grasshopper, I shifted to the right where a surprising splash of blue caught my eye. Several tall stalks of Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) were pushing up through the grasses, and in the fading light the blue petals seemed to hang in the air, ignoring the fact the sun was not there to light them, and producing their own glow instead...

Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)
This plant has so much to offer--striking blue-purple flowers, interesting striped patterns, and strangely shaped petals!

Great Blue Lobelia flowers are made up of two petals. The upper petal (lip) splits into two lobes (which remind me of rabbit ears), and the lower petal is striped with white, and splits into three lobes...



Leaf of Lobelia siphilitica
The leaves of Great Blue Lobelia are lance-like and pointed and can be 2-6" long, growing alternate along the stem. The plants grow 1-3' high, preferring wet woodland edges, moist thickets, and swamps. "(Newcomb's Wildflower Guide," by Lawrence Newcomb, and "Wildflowers of Ohio" by Stan Tekiela).

...tall spikes of Great Blue Lobelia push through grasses and other plants bordering the Little Miami River.

...a beautiful flower with medicinal uses too!

Great Blue Lobelia as a medicinal herb...
I didn't know much about lobelia and its history, so I thought I'd take a look. I found tons of references in books and on the Internet about its medicinal uses through the years. The most repeated entries referred to its name. Native Americans, especially the Iroquois, used this plant to treat syphilis. Settlers sent it back to Europe for use, but the physicians there had little luck with the plant and abandoned it. However, the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus believed the claims of its efficacy and therefore labeled it Lobelia syphilitica (source: this info is repeated on many sites and is in several books, included a few of my wildflower guides, but Rosanna King has a detailed explanation of it here). King goes on to write that the failure in Europe is probably because Native Americans used lobelia with other herbs, such as cherry bark and New Jersey Tea (much of the information in King's article references "A Treasury of American Indian Herbs," by Virginia Scully. It looks like an interesting read. I might want to get it!)

It appears, however, that the plant's real fame came from Samuel Thomson (1769-1843), who at the age of four discovered its primary use, that of an emetic. This little story made me laugh... One day little Samuel stumbled across the beautiful plant and admired it, but his curiosity got the best of him, and he decided to pick it and have a taste. After chewing a few of the pods he promptly threw up. That alone is not funny...but what he did afterwards made me chuckle. From then on, he'd talk his friends into eating a pod or two just to watch them vomit (I can just see a little boy doing that)! Thomson went on to become a gifted healer, pushing aside the accepted methods of blood-letting and the application of mercury and other metals, and replacing them with the benefits of lobelia (source, King, here). Thomson also used the spice cayenne with lobelia, holding that cayenne stimulated the circulation and lobelia mildly sedated and relaxed the body (source, "Lobelia - Native American Wonder Herb," here).

Through the years lobelia was used as a cure-all herb and a catalyst herb working in conjunction with other herbs. It proved effective as an expectorant and an antispasmodic and was used to help people suffering from asthma. It's common names reflected its uses and included emetic weed, emetic herb, puke weed, vomit weed, vomit wort, gag root, eye-bright, asthma weed, wild tobacco (it has a nicotine-like alkaloid, lobeline), and Indian tobacco. It also had the common name of bladder pod, named after the shape of the seed pods (King).

20 comments:

Elizabeth Smith said...

Wow - you are so right, they DO glow with their own light! What gorgeous photos you always create. I chuckled too, thinking of that little prankster getting his friends to eat the seedpods and then throw up - what a picture! Thanks for the interesting look at lobelia.

grammie g said...

Hi Kelly...Goodness what a beauty this one is ...there is nothing like a flower that is blue especially in the wild.
Lovely images , especially the close ones of the plant!
Thanks for the info to, and interesting history..cute story of the experiment of the seedpods...you wouldn't get me to try it lol!!

Grace

Birding is Fun! said...

Interesting stuff and pretty pictures!

TexWisGirl said...

good lord. puke week. vomit weed. ha!

Wanda..... said...

Kelly, just this afternoon, I was so excited to find three separate plants of Great Blue Lobelia growing at the edge of our field. I took so many photos, but none will compare to your lovely ones.

Bob Bushell said...

A beautiful flower and a text about its medical treatment, well I never did.

KAT said...

love this herb flowers color of blue...it is so vibrant. That naughty Sam is a real trouble maker.

Fun to read all about the lobelia

KAT

Sgolis said...

The blue lobelia photographs are stunning. The plant brightens the wood and looks beautiful when grown by red cardinal flower...I shared your post on twitter.

Kerri said...

These are wonderful! I think I've seen this growing and never knew what is was.

Carol Mattingly said...

Asthma weed. Yuck. Love these images. They are so beautiful. Purple flowers. How I wished they would hang around for winter. Carol

Montanagirl said...

Just simply gorgeous. I LOVE the color, and crisp detail you captured.

Tammie Lee said...

awesome lobelia portraits Kelly, the clarity and focus is stunning. you done them good! I love the story of finding out about it's emetic properties, so fun and wonderful to read about.

Elaine said...

These are beautiful, Kelly. I've grown lobelia for a long time, but they really don't compare to their wild cousin. I love the story of little Samuel and his lifelong interest in puke weed.

Carole Meisenhelter said...

oh yes delightful photos; beautiful flowers; great colours

Guy said...

Hi Kelly

What a great post the photos are wonderful but I really liked the detailed information you provided.
Sadly that is the kind of joke that would appeal to small boys, and teenagers and I suspect many supposedly adult men.

Guy

Janice K said...

I love that color! So delicate!

NCmountainwoman said...

Wow! Who would have guessed there would be such fascinating information on lobelia. I'm going to have to start looking up things more often. Thanks for sharing the lovely photographs and the information.

Weedpicker Cheryl said...

Amazing photos Kelly- I swear I am gonna quit blogging and just come here!

forgetmenot said...

Kelly, Your macro shots are totally amazing. Could you find a prettier flower than that bright blue lobelia!!! Always fun to "learn" something from your post too. Have a lovely weekend. Mickie :)

Kelly said...

...thanks, everyone!! Puke Weed...can you believe it? Such a beautiful flower, such a horrid name, but...it seems to have done a lot of good as such! I know I'll never chew on one. Low-light photography always seems to help with blues and blue flowers. I'm glad the sun was hidden behind thick grey clouds for this one!