Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Lobelias
Nature Bulletin No. 499-A   September 22, 1973
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

In these early fall days before October's killing frosts ring down the curtain on our 1973 wildflower show, it is good to get out in the open and see what blossoms take part in the last act. Not the stars of the performance, and not last in the massed chorus, of color either, the Lobelias play brilliant minor roles.

Colonies of the most vivid of the Lobelias, the Cardinal Flower, can be seen in some of the wetlands of the Palos forest preserves and in the big swamp at Indiana Dunes State Park. It is a perennial, two feet high or taller, topped by clusters of rich vermilion blossoms. The name is taken from its supposed resemblance in color to the famous hat worn by cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church.

This is one of several common flowers with elongated flower-tubes and orange or red colors attractive to hummingbirds upon which they depend for pollination. Other examples are the columbine, the trumpet honeysuckle, the trumpet creeper, the orange jewelweed, the scarlet sage, and the Oswego tea. In the cardinal flower the stamen tips are united to form a tube around the pistil -- a tube so long that the feathery head of the bird brushes off pollen while probing with its long beak and tongue for the nectar deep inside. Each flower is followed in autumn by a capsule containing innumerable seeds, among the smallest of any native wildflower -- smaller than a mustard seed.

The Great Blue Lobelia, another late bloomer, is the cardinal flower's twin sister. In the Chicago region it is found frequently in open marshy ground and along moist stream banks. Its numerous tubular flowers, bright blue touched with white, are borne on a long leafy spike. Just as red and orange attract hummingbirds, blue flowers attract bees and, in this case, the bumblebee carries the pollen. Almost 300 years ago this species was taken to England where it has been cultivated and hybridized with other Lobelias to produce several varieties of highly prized garden flowers. Another, the little annual Edging Lobelia is grown in hanging baskets, window boxes and in borders.

The one economically important Lobelia is the Indian Tobacco found in dry fields and woods. Its leaves and seeds contain a substance poisonous to livestock, called lobeline, which is chemically similar to nicotine in people trying to quit the tobacco habit. This substance affects the heart and blood pressure, and is used to relieve bronchitis and asthma -- hence another name, Asthma Weed. The dried leaves, mixed with those of the Jimson weed, are made into cigarettes and smoked by asthma sufferers.

A species with delicate blue flowers, the Bog Lobelia, prefers wet alkaline soils such as the marshes of the Illinois Peach State Park north of Waukegan. While most kinds are associated with the latter half of our blooming season, another species, the little Pale Spiked Lobelia, adds a touch of light blue to the prairies in late spring.

Over the world there are hundreds of species of plants belonging to the Lobelia family. They are characterized by acrid milky juice, irregular tubular flowers and seeds in pods. Perhaps the most bizarre kind is a tree in the equatorial mountains of Africa, which reaches a height of 25 feet with a flower spike six feet long.

They are named after Matthias de l'Obell, a Flemish herbalist.

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