What Wildflower Begins Blooming This Week? (August week 1)

This week, I’m featuring Great Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) as one of our local wildflowers that begins to bloom at this time.

PLEASE NOTE: New York Protected Status: Exploitably Vulnerable = Native plants likely to become threatened in the near future throughout all or a significant portion of their ranges within the State if causal factors continue unchecked. Fragmentation of remaining habitat, contamination of the gene pool, and wild harvesting present ongoing threats to this species.

PLEASE NOTE: Culturally Significant Plant = Ethnobotanic Uses: A poultice of the crushed leaves of the plant was used for headache and a warm leaf infusion was good for colds. Read more.

The genus Lobelia is named after the Flemish botanist Matthias de l’Obel (1538-1616), who, when he moved to England as physician to James I, anglicized his name to Matthew Lobel, hence “lobelia.” He and Pierre Pena wrote Stirpium Adversaria Nova in 1570, which detailed a new plant classification system based upon leaves. The species name of siphilitica is a reference to the old folk medicine belief that extracts made from the plant could cure syphilis.

Great Lobelia is a rather attractive plant that produces some welcome diversity with its violet-blue flowers during late summer or fall, when other forbs with yellow flowers are typically dominant. (Forbs are herbaceous (not woody) broadleaf vascular (presence of conducting tissue) plants that are not grass-like.)

Great Lobelia

Identification Tips:

This erect perennial plant is 1-4′ tall and usually remains unbranched. The alternate leaves are up to 5″ long and 2″ wide; they are oblong-lancelike, oval, or broadly elliptic in shape, and their margins are serrated. The lower leaves clasp the ribbed, stout central stem, while the upper leaves are sessile (attached directly without a stem). The upper surfaces of leaves are medium to dark green and sparingly covered with short hairs. The central stem terminates in a spike-like cluster of flowers about ½-2′ long. A basal rosette of leaves appears first as the plant emerges in the spring.

The showy flowers are 1-1½” long, angled upward, and densely distributed along the raceme. Each flower consists of bright blue petals united into a tube having an upper lip with 2 lobes that curve slightly inward or backward and a 3-lobed lower lip striped with white. Great Lobelia is gynodioecious, that is a certain percentage of plants will have sterile male parts and are thus female only.

The flowers are replaced by 2-celled capsules containing small seeds. At maturity, hundreds of oblong, ribbed, brown seeds are released from each capsule that opens at the top; the tiny seeds are probably distributed by wind.

Folklore:

Some North American Indian tribes believed that if the finely ground roots were secretly added to the food of an arguing couple then this would avert a divorce and they would love each other again.

It is said that crushed dried leaves placed near your pillow will encourage intuitive dreaming.

Culinary and Medicinal Uses:

CAUTION! All parts of this plant are toxic due to the presence of several alkaloids (nitrogenous organic compounds of plant origin which have pronounced physiological actions on humans).

American Indian tribes used the leaves and roots for multiple purposes; such as, an anthelmintic for worms, analgesic for pain, a pulmonary aid, a hemostat to stop nose bleeds, a febrifuge to reduce fevers, and a gastrointestinal aid for stomach trouble. They also used this plant to cure tobacco or whiskey addiction, as a love or anti-love medicine, or to counteract witchcraft-induced sickness. However, it was the North American Indians’ use of the root of this plant that was believed to be effective in the treatment of syphilis that garnered the most attention from colonists for the plant’s potential medicinal uses. North American Indians would use the fresh root (which still contained the volatile oils) in conjunction with Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) and Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) as a tea, and then dust the infected patient’s skin ulcers with the bark of New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus).

Early American herbalist Samuel Thomson (1769 – 1843) used this plant along with cayenne as the main components to his herbal therapeutic practice.

Wildlife Value:

The seeds are too small to be of much value to birds.

The nectar and pollen of the flowers attract primarily bumblebees (e.g., Bombus pennsylvanicus, Bombus fervidus) and other long-tongued bees (e.g., Anthophora spp., Melissodes spp., Svastra spp.), as well as European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera), yellow-faced bees, small carpenter bees, sweat bees and Sand Wasp (Scolia dubia). Sweat bees collect only pollen. Less common visitors include the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) and large butterflies.

Bees cannot see the color red, but they can see blue and green, as well as ultraviolet light. Bees can see things we cannot see. For example, many flowers have “ultraviolet nectar guides” on them that are invisible to humans but tell bees where to find nectar in a flower.

The following excerpt helps to illustrate that point and it is an excellent description of how Great Lobelia flowers are specialized to accommodate their pollinator partner(s). This post was written by Anne Stine and appeared on the blog entitled The Prairie Ecologist:

The architecture of this flower insures that only burly bumble bees can gain access to the pollen and nectar. Some other insects “cheat” and chew holes in the flower to by-pass the petal-gate, but bumble bees are their primary visitors. Watching the bumble bees pry open the flowers was entertaining. First, they climb onto the flower’s extending ‘tongue’. Then, they push aside the two top petal ‘lips’ and dunk themselves head first into the flower. Their front half is completely inside the blossom. Only their bottoms and back legs stick out. They clamber up the stalk, climbing from flower to flower until they reach the top, and then they fly off to visit a neighboring plant. Because great blue lobelia seems to grow in patches, this is an efficient operation for both bee and blossom. The bees act drunk on nectar, and the flowers are practically guaranteed a thorough pollination.

Where Found Locally:

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