Focus on Indian tobacco, an important essential plant in the Indian pharmacopoeia. Boasting the botanical name Lobelia inflata, the leaves and roots of this small plant of the Campanulaceae family were used as a medicinal herb by many tribes such as the crows, the Cherokees, or the Iroquois. One of its most widespread uses was smoking to relieve respiratory diseases in healing rituals: especially coughs, asthma and bronchitis, hence the name “Indian tobacco”. The plant has also been used to treat torticollis, bites or dermatological problems… without forgetting of course the preparation of infusions of the plant to make “love potions” or even as a decoction to counteract the problems caused by witchcraft!
Combining the use of plants with shamanism and magic, the settlers who landed in America feared the medicine of what they called the “Redskins.” They considered it diabolical, or at least primitive in their eyes… but it was inevitable that certain settlers, trappers, were direct witnesses and beneficiaries of Native American healing practices. They realized that the Indians had effective remedies and medical knowledge! In this article we will see how the Lobelia inflata has made this seemingly insignificant plant one of the main references of homeopathic medicine!
From Native American Medicine to American Medicine!
This small plant has had a long epic from its ancestral use, until its transformation into “modern medicine”. Historians report that Lobelia inflata was widely used by American doctors in the 1800s as an emetic to eliminate toxins. It would be Samuel Thomson (1769-1843), a self-taught American herbalist and botanist, who would have popularized its use in America. Most of his knowledge on the subject came from an old “healer” woman, and so he discovered Lobelia and its uses by the natives. He also used this plant and the knowledge of the American Indians in the system of alternative medicine that he later founded, called “Thomsonism”.
It is a herbal method, very specific and very original for its time. The theory behind his practice is very simple. He thinks that all diseases are the result of heat loss in the human body. And so the goal is to reduce the heat with certain plants and certain measures. Another goal that he considers important is to eliminate obstacles, waste, accumulations by purifying the person. Something that may seem a bit cheeky today, but remember that we are in the early 1800’s and the alternative is even more violent purges such as incisions and hemorrhages. At the heart of this method was the Lobelia inflata to make the person vomit and evacuate what Thomson called blockages or waste. He then used other plants to return the internal heat to the body, and finally, he used steam baths to make the person sweat (he had discovered the virtues of sweat lodges among the Native Americans and was largely inspired).
The method of Dr. Thompson was recognized as effective: By raising body temperature, dilating blood vessels and strengthening the immune system, this cure increased resistance to infection and accelerated healing. His methods enjoyed great success from the end of the 19th century, success that of course was not attributed to the real inventors!
The use of Lobelia inflationa in current medicine
The Samuel Thomson-inspired methods developed and lasted until the use of plants in American medicine declined after 1907, when the government began subsidizing medical studies of chemical drugs that took over from natural products. Pharmaceutical labs nevertheless used the plants the Native Americans used to search for possible active molecules.
Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflationa) does not escape this trend. Studies on the plant have confirmed many of its medicinal properties. Lobelia inflata, registered in the French pharmacopoeia for several years, is said to have an interesting effect on weaning tobacco. Thus, the plant is used in the form of cigarettes to get rid of it. There are also homeopathic medicines against tobacco bondage, against nausea and difficulty breathing.
Please note that our articles on the history of plants and their traditional uses should in no way replace consulting a health professional before use! Sources: “A Story of the Life and Medical Discovery of Samuel Thomson” (1882), “Cherokee Plants and Their Uses, A 400 Year History” (1975); “Native Economic Plants of Montana” (1905) and “Iroquois Medical Botany” (1977).
As a landscape architect and geographer by training, I am passionate about the plant world and its countless curiosities. Founder of the Rexania blog and activist for gardening in harmony with nature, I am also an Alsatian gardener, ardent defender of ancient, free and reproducible varieties.