Wild Flowers of Pittsburgh

Campanulaceae

Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata)

This is by far our most common lobelia, a close relative both of the little blue lobelias that dangle from our hanging baskets and the stately Cardinal Flowers that adorn our perennial gardens. It likes an open woodland or the shady margin of a meadow, but it will also spring up in the middle of a sunny lawn given half a chance. The flowers are pale blue, often almost white. The species name inflata refers to the puffed-up seedpods that develop after the flowers.

The plant in this picture was blooming in early August in a shady lawn in Mount Lebanon.

The name “Indian Tobacco” comes from the fact that certain Indian tribes smoked the stuff, in which practice they were imitated by some of the English colonists. All accounts say the taste and stench are at least as foul as those of real tobacco. It is, as Gray points out, poisonous, and regrettably still “a noted quack medicine” today.

Lobelias are placed in their own family Lobeliaceae by Gray, but most modern botanists place them in the family Campanulaceae, the Bellflower Family, often as a subfamily called Lobelioideae.

Gray describes the genus and the species:

LOBELIA [Plumier] L. Calyx 6-cleft, with a short tube. Corolla with a straight tube split down on the (apparently) upper side, somewhat 2-lipped; the upper lip of 2 rather erect lobes, the lower lip spreading and 3-cleft. Two of the anthers in our species bearded at the top. Pod 2-celled, many-seeded, opening at the top. — Flowers axillary or chiefly in bracted racemes; in summer and early autumn. (Dedicated to Matthias de l’Obel, an early Flemish herbalist.)

Flowers blue, or blue variegated with white.

Flowers smaller (corolla-tube not more than 4-8 mm. long).

Stem leafy, often paniculately branched; flowers loosely racemose; sinuses of calyx not appendaged; annual or biennial.

Leaves ovate or oblong, obtusely toothed; pod inflated, wholly inferior.

L. inflàta L. (INDIAN TOBACCO.) Stems paniculately much branched from an annual root, pubescent with spreading hairs, 3-8 dm. high; leaves gradually diminishing into leaf-like bracts, which exceed the lower short-pediceled flowers; calyx-tube ovoid; corolla only 3-4 mm. long. — Dry open fields and thickets. — Plant poisonous and a noted quack medicine.


Great Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)

Sometimes called “Blue Cardinal Flower” because of its strong resemblance to its close relative the Cardinal Flower, L. cardinalis, with which this species apparently hybridizes. The unattractive species name comes from an old belief that it was a treatment for syphilis. The Plant Fact Sheet (PDF) from the Natural Resources Conservation Service adds that “The Meskwaki ground up the roots of this plant and used it as an anti-divorce remedy.” What America needs today is more ground-up Lobelia siphilitica roots.

The flowers are variable in color: some are solid pale blue, some darker blue, and some—as here—strongly bicolored. A white form is found occasionally.

Like the Cardinal Flower, this Lobelia likes damp situations; these were blooming at the end of August in a roadside ditch near Cranberry.

Gray describes the genus and the species:

LOBELIA [Plumier] L. Calyx 5-cleft, with a short tube. Corolla with a straight tube split down on the (apparently) upper side, somewhat 2-lipped; the upper lip of 2 rather erect lobes, the lower lip spreading and 3-cleft. Two of the anthers in our species bearded at the top. Pod 2-celled, many-seeded, opening at the top. — Flowers axillary or chiefly in bracted racemes ; in summer and early autumn. (Dedicated to Matthias de l’Obel, an early Flemish herbalist.)

Flowers blue, or blue variegated with white.

Flowers rather large (corolla-tube 1-1.3 cm. long), spicate-racemose; stem leafy, 0.3-1 m. high; perennial.

Leaves ovate to lanceolate, numerous; lip of corolla glabrous.

L. siphilitica L. (GREAT LOBELIA.) Somewhat hairy; leaves thin, acute at both ends, 0.5-1.5 dm. long, irregularly serrate; flowers nearly 2.6 cm. long, pediceled, longer than the leafy bracts; corolla light blue, rarely white; calyx hirsute, the sinuses with conspicuous deflexed auricles, the short tube hemispherical. — Low grounds, Me. to Ont. westw. and southw.; rare eastw.

The pictures in this article have been donated to Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, so no permission is required to use them for any purpose whatsoever.


Venus’ Looking-Glass (Triodanis perfoliata)

A cheerful and distinctive member of the Bellflower family that likes poor soil: this was one of a colony growing out of the gravel by a railroad in Oakmont. Nothing else in our area has the combination of a columnar single stalk with clasping leaves and upward-facing violet-blue flowers. More commonly known in botanical literature under the genus Specularia, which is also called Legousia or Legouzia.

Gray describes the genus (which he calls Specularia) and the species:

SPECULARIA [Heist.] Fabrlcius. VENUS’S LOOKING-GLASS.

Calyx 5 (or 3-4)-lobed. Corolla wheel-shaped, 5-lobed. Stamens 5, separate; the membranaceous hairy filaments shorter than the anthers. Stigmas 3. Capsule prismatic or slender-cylindric, 3-celled, opening by 3 small lateral valves. — Low annuals, with axillary blue or purplish flowers, in American species dimorphous, the earlier small and cleistogamous. (Name from Speculum Veneris, the early name of the common European species.) Legouzia Durand.

S perfoliata (L.) A. DC. Somewhat hairy, 1-9 dm. high; leaves roundish or ovate, clasping by the heart-shaped base, toothed; flowers sessile, solitary or 2-3 together in the axils, only the upper or later ones having a conspicuous and expanding corolla; capsule ellipsoid, short, straight, opening rather below the middle; seeds lenticular. (Legouzia Britton.) —Sterile open ground, s. Me, to Ont., westw. and southw.

In Wild Flowers Worth Knowing, Neltje Blanchan gives us this description:

Venus’ Looking-glass; Clasping Bellflower

Specularia perfoliata (Legouzia perfoliata)

Flowers—Violet blue, from 1/2 to 3/4 in. across; solitary or 2 or 3 together, seated, in axils of upper leaves. Calyx lobes varying from 3 to 5 in earlier and later flowers, acute, rigid; corolla a 5-spoked wheel; 5 stamens; 1 pistil with 3 stigmas. Stem: 6 in. to 2 ft. long, hairy, densely leafy, slender, weak.

Leaves: Round, clasped about stem by heart-shaped base.

Preferred Habitat—Sterile waste places, dry woods.

Flowering Season—May—September.

Distribution—From British Columbia, Oregon, and Mexico, east to Atlantic Ocean.

At the top of a gradually lengthened and apparently overburdened leafy stalk, weakly leaning upon surrounding vegetation, a few perfect blossoms spread their violet wheels, while below them are insignificant earlier flowers, which, although they have never opened, nor reared their heads above the hollows of the little shell-like leaves where they lie secluded, have, nevertheless, been producing seed without imported pollen while their showy sisters slept. But the later blooms, by attracting insects, set cross-fertilized seed to counteract any evil tendencies that might weaken the species if it depended upon self-fertilization only. When the European Venus’ Looking-glass used to be cultivated in gardens here, our grandmothers tell us it was altogether too prolific, crowding out of existence its less fruitful, but more lovely, neighbors.


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