The lost forms of lobelia

Among nineteenth century Thomsonian practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic, the preferred form of lobelia was the dried powdered herb, stirred into warm water or into the infusion of another herb. The only alcohol-based form they used was the juice of the fresh green pulverized plant, stabilized with alcohol. A vinegar-tincture of the green or dried plant was also used, especially that of the dried plant by the Coffinites in Britain. Only the Regular school of physicians used the tincture of the dried plant during the first half of the 19th century. Later, Physiomedicalist Wm. Cook lists the tincture of the dried plant as one preparation among a dozen, but the first form he lists is a solid extract of the green plant.

Contemporary herbalists generally use the dry-plant tincture, unaware, presumably, that the masters of this herb considered that form to be a poor-cousin of the forms named above. The difference between the dried and green plant preparations can be readily experienced by tasting or taking doses of the two. The fresh plant tincture is hardly emetic at all -- this author has repeatedly taken tablespoon doses of it with no emetic effects. It is possible that this preparation contains a different spectrum of the lobeline-related alkaloids than one made from the dried plant. Both forms possess antispasmodic action, but Thomson himself preferred the green plant preparation for asthma.

Thomson describes three ways to prepare lobelia, and considered them to be three different medicines with three different uses. He states that the plant is medicinally active in all stages of its growth, but that the best time to pick it is when the seeds have matured and the seed pods turn yellow. He says to dry it completely, shake out the seed and sift it and save the seed for separate use. Two medicines can be prepared from this:

- The dried powdered leaves and seed pods. This powder was stirred with an equal amount of sugar into a cup of warm water, being careful not to destroy the properties with too much heat

"There is but one way in which this herb can be prepared that it will refuse its services, and that is when boiled or scalded; it is therefore important to beat in mind that there must never be any thing put into it warmer than a blood heat." (Thomson, 1931) A teaspoonful of this powder was Thomson's standard emetic and antispasmodic treatment.

- "Reduce the seeds [separated out from the dried plant above] to a fine powder in a mortar. Take a half ounce of this powder -- a large spoonful -- with an equal quantity of capsicum, and put them into eight ounces of a tincture of myrrh gum, made with strong wine or brandy." To this, Thomson would add a teaspoon of Lady's slipper, an endangered plant today that is generally not available in commerce. Valerian might be substituted for it, or, the British Thomsonians (Coffinites) substituted vervain (Verbena officinalis). This was Thomson's strongest medicine, used internally for the most serious spasmodic illnesses, such a tetanus or rabies, and in near-terminal cases where "the vital spark is nearly extinct." He said its action would "run through the body like electricity." The preparation was shaken before administration, and thus delivered both the tincture portion and the powder residue.

A third medicine prepared from the fresh green plant, was the one Thomson preferred for use in asthma. To prepare this tincture, says Thomson:

"...take the green herb in any stage of its growth, if the small plants are used, take roots and all, put them into a mortar and pound them fine, then add the same quantity of good spirits; when well-pounded and worked together, strain it through a fine cloth and squeeze and press it hard to get out all the juice. Save the liquor in bottles, close stopped, for use. Good vinegar, or pepper sauce [capsicum] may be used instead of the spirit. Prepared in this is an excellent medicine for the asthma, and all complaints of the lungs. For a dose, take from a half to a teaspoonful. Its effects will be more certain with about the same quantity of No. 2 [Capsicum, cayenne pepper].

Two elements here are distinct: 1) The fresh green plant is used, crushed or juiced. 2) The maceration in alcohol is brief. Thomson relates the use of this green tincture for asthma thus:

In the fall of the year 1807, I introduced the use of the emetic Herb, tinctured in spirit, for the asthma and other complaints of the lungs, and cured several of consumption. In 1808, I cured a woman in Newington of the asthma, who had not laid in her bed for six months. I gathered some of the young plants not bigger than a dollar, bruised them, and tinctured them in spirits, gave her the tincture and she lay in bed the first night. (Thomson 1825)

Thomson taught the woman how to make the preparation, and she reportedly was able to keep her asthma at bay by repeated dosing.

The Coffinites, followers of Thomson's system in Britain, preferred the following preparations:

- A teaspoon of the dried powdered leaves given each half hour, stirred into a cup of vervain (Verbena officinalis) or pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) tea. (Coffin)

- A vinegar tincture. Coffin's instructions: "Take of lobelia, herb and seed mixed, two ounces [dried]; good white-wine vinegar, one pint; dissolve in a jar for fourteen days, then strain. Dose for a child: teaspoonful to one tablespoonful." Coffin preferred the vinegar tincture to the powder for children. He was opposed to any form of alcohol tincture, because, he said, the alcohol "must irritate the mouth and throat." (Coffin)

Thus we see that for about fifty years of herbal practice, the Thomsonians herbalists never used the dried plant tincture. Today it is practically the only form used.

Medical Herbalism.


By Paul Bergner and Jonathan Treasure

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