3 August 2021
Indian tobacco is a poisonous plant unrelated to cultivated tobacco yet it has the same name. What’s the difference?
Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata) is native to eastern North America with tiny blue flowers on a plant six inches to three feet tall. The flowers are so small you might not notice them among the plant’s rumpled leaves. The one pictured above is blooming this week in Moraine State Park.
The plant’s alternate name is “puke weed” for good reason.
This acrid poisonous annual is found in a variety of sites, often in poor soil. The American Indians were said to have smoked and chewed its leaves; hence the common name. Though once used as an emetic, the root should not be eaten, for if taken in quantity it can be fatal.— wildlfower.org description of Lobelia inflata
Both tobaccos are poisonous but in different ways.
Indian tobacco contains multiple alkaloid compounds that are poisonous if ingested. A member of the family Campanulaceae, it is related to bellflowers, not related to real tobacco. You can be poisoned by Indian tobacco if you swallow it.
Cultivated tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) is a hybrid of two or three wild tobaccos native to the Andes Mountains of Bolivia and Argentina. It’s in Family Solanaceae and related to tomatoes, potatoes, and some very poisonous plants including Datura. You can see that the tobacco flower is quite different from the Indian tobacco flower.
Tobacco is poisonous because it contains nicotine which can hurt you in a number of ways. Did you know it be absorbed through the skin? Tobacco workers must wear gloves, long sleeve shirts, long pants and water-resistant clothing to prevent nicotine poisoning that causes nausea and vomiting and can lead to heat stroke.
In a choice between the two tobaccos I’d rather deal with the Lobelia.
(photos by Kate St. John and from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)