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Lobelia erinus L. 1753
pronounced: low-BEE-lee-uh EAR-rin-uss
(Campanulaceae – the harebell family)
common names: Edging Lobelia, Lobelia
Lobelia was named in honour of Mathias de L'Obel, Latinized to Matthæus Lobelius, (1538–1616), Belgian physician and botanist. He is credited with the first attempt to classify plants according to their natural affinities, rather than their medical uses. Erinus is from the Greek ερινος (erinos), the name used by Dioscorides for a plant similar to basil.
This is a native of southern Africa, from Malawi and Namibia south to South Africa. It is a prostrate or scrambling herbaceous perennial plant growing 8–15 cm tall. The basal leaves are oval, about 10 mm long by 4–8 mm broad, with a toothed margin; the leaves higher on the stems are slender and sometimes untoothed. The flowers, produced in loose panicles, are blue to violet in wild plants, with a 5-lobed corolla 8–20 mm across. The three lower petals are much larger and wider than the two upper petals, which are very narrow, pointed, and held closely together. The fruit is a 5–8 mm capsule containing numerous small seeds.
Lobelia erinus is a very popular ornamental plant in gardens, grown for its long flowering period, from mid-spring to early autumn. It is perennial in tropical and sub-tropical climates, but often grown as an annual plant in colder areas. Numerous cultivars have been selected for garden use, with a wide range of flower colours, including white, pink, red, pale to dark blue, and purple. Some cultivars will cascade over a wall, hanging basket or window box, while others are more suitable for edging or filling, and for rock gardens.
Lobelia has a long history of use as a herbal remedy, particularly in North America, for respiratory conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, and coughs. Historically, native Americans smoked the leaves as a cure for asthma. In the 19th century, American physicians prescribed lobelia to cause vomiting in order to remove toxins from the body. Because of this, it earned the name of ‘puke weed’. Today, lobelia is sometimes suggested by alternative practitioners to help clear mucus from the respiratory tract.
An active ingredient in lobelia, lobeline, was thought to be similar to nicotine in its effect on the body; so it was used as a nicotine substitute in many anti-smoking products and preparations designed to break the smoking habit. In 1993, the US Food and Drug administration prohibited the sale of smoking products containing lobeline, maintaining that it was not effective in helping people quit or reduce smoking. Strangely enough, there seems to have been little research into its effects on either animals or on the human body, although it is known to be potentially toxic if used in more than small quantities. Moderate-to-large doses can cause side-effects, ranging from dry mouth and nausea to convulsions and even coma.
The above-ground portions of the plant, mainly the leaves and the seeds, are used for medicinal purposes. Some herbalists still use it (usually in combination with other herbs) to treat asthma, bronchitis and coughs, and it is an ingredient in some homeopathic medicines.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2010
Page last updated 24th December 2016