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(Bellflower family)


Two thousand species of mostly perennial herbs in 60–70 genera are found in temperate and sub-tropical regions, and on mountains in tropical regions. A number of species are cultivated for their flowers, those most often encountered belonging to the genera Campanula L. and Lobelia L. The genus Lobelia has previously been classified in its own family, the Lobeliaceae.

Lobelia inflata L., otherwise known as Indian tobacco, is used in a smoke or in tea as a marihuana substitute (Siegel 1976) with mild euphoric, stimulant, and hallucinogenic effects (Anon 1979). Ingestion of Lobelia can cause sweating, vomiting, paralysis, depressed temperature, coma, and death. The alkaloid lobeline, which is present in certain Lobelia species, has effects similar to those of nicotine, and it has been used as an anti-smoking aid, but with no more effect than a placebo (Todd 1967).

The Campanulaceae is a source of a variety of polyacetylenic compounds (Badanyan et al. 1973, Bentley et al. 1973). Such compounds have been demonstrated to have in vitro toxicity and phototoxicity against bacteria, fungi, and human fibroblasts and erythrocytes (Warren et al. 1980, Wat et al. 1977, 1980a) but have not yet been incriminated as causes of contact dermatitis in man.

The plants often have an acrid milky juice (Bailey 1949). Allergenicity and also irritancy to both skin and mucous membranes have been reported, but the causative agents have not been identified.

Campanula isophylla Moretti

Biberstein (1927) observed a delayed (48h) positive patch test reaction to this Italian species in a 22 year old female who presented with recurrent dermatitis of the face and hands.

Campanula medium L.
Canterbury Bells

Adamson (1952) noted that a lady who had been accustomed to picking off the dead flowers of Canterbury bells without any ill result, one year she did so in hot sunshine and developed dermatitis of the hands. She subsequently experienced frequent and more widespread dermatitis on any slight contact with the flowers or seeds. He used this example with others to support his suggestion that sun heat or artificial heat is required to initially induce contact sensitivity.

Clermontia arborescens Hillebr.
[syn. Cyanea arborescens H. Mann.]

In Hawai‘i, the sap from this species has been applied to deep cuts (Nagata 1971).

Hippobroma longiflora Don
[syn. Isotoma longiflora C.Presl]
Star of Bethlehem, Madam Fate, Star Flower

The juice of all parts of the plant can irritate the eyes and produce a burning sensation in the mouth and throat (Burkill 1935, Allen 1943). Souder (1963) noted that a drop of the sap in the eye can cause blindness. von Reis & Lipp (1982) recorded that the milky juice was said to irritate the skin and to produce blindness. It will inflame the skin unless immediately washed off (Morton 1981).

The plant has caused irritation in English gardeners (Phillips 1967). The leaves have been used as a counter-irritant (Burkill 1935).

Laurentia Adans.

A degree of confusion exists in the literature regarding the classification of plants in this genus. Willis (1973) considered this genus to comprise 15 species found in the USA, South Africa, and in the Mediterranean region, and to be closely related to the genus Isotoma Lindl., itself comprising 10 species found in Australia. Mabberley (1987) on the other hand recognised neither Isotoma nor Laurentia, choosing instead to bring these plants into the genus Solenopsis C.Presl Brummitt (1992) and Mabberley (1997), however, recognise neither Isotoma nor Solenopsis, preferring to classify these plants in the genus Laurentia.

Laurentia axillaris E.Wimm.
[syn. Isotoma axillaris Lindl.]
Australian Harebell

Referring to Isotoma axillaris, Hurst (1942) notes that the dried plant is irritating to the throat.

Laurentia hypocrateriformis E.Wimm.
[syns Isotoma hypocrateriformis Druce, Isotoma brownii Don, Lobelia hypocrateriformis R.Br.]

Referring to Isotoma hypocrateriformis, Aplin (1976) noted that the plant has been reported to contain a sap that is very irritant to the eye.

Laurentia petraea E.Wimm.
[syn. Isotoma petraea F.Muell.]
Rock Isotome, Cheeky Bugger

Higginson (1957) reported that when travelling in a closed motor vehicle containing sacks full of the plant material collected for chemical investigation, the pungent vapour (or dust) from the plants was irritating to the eyes and throat (Cleland & Lee 1963).

Lobelia L.

Perhaps 300 species are of cosmopolitan distribution in tropical and sub-tropical regions, especially in the Americas.

The leaves, stems, and fruits are said to be irritating and capable of producing dermatitis (Bulliard 1784, Woods 1962, McCord 1962).

Lobelia excelsa Leschen.

The leaves are smoked in India like tobacco. The acrid milky juice can produce irritant dermatitis (Behl et al. 1966).

Lobelia inflata L.
Indian Tobacco, Pukeweed

Application of the crude drug to the skin can cause irritation (Piffard 1881). A preparation of the herb mixed with powdered slippery elm bark (Ulmus fulva Michx., fam. Ulmaceae) has been used as a poultice for treating inflammation, ulcers, and swellings (Wren 1975).

Lobelia nicotinaefolia Heyne
Wild Tobacco

The milky juice can cause dermatitis, and the dried plant irritates the nose like snuff (Behl et al. 1966).

Lobelia patula L.f.
[syns Lobelia genistoides A.DC., Rapuntium genistoides C.Presl]
White Creeping Lobelia, Wild Lobelia

[Information available but not yet included in database]

Lobelia philippinensis Skottsb.

The white milky juice is said to be capable of causing blindness (von Reis Altschul 1973).


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  • Anon (1979) Medical Letter 21(528): 7.
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  • Cleland JB, Lee DJ (1963) The poisonous and urticating plants of Australia. In: Keegan HL, Macfarlane WV (Eds) Venomous and Poisonous Animals and Noxious Plants of the Pacific Region, pp. 3-14. Oxford: Pergamon Press [WorldCat] [url]
  • Higginson ARR (1957) Further notes on plants injurious to man. South Australian Naturalist 32: 26
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  • Todd RG (Ed.) (1967) Martindale. The Extra Pharmacopoeia. 25th edn. London: Pharmaceutical Press [WorldCat]
  • von Reis Altschul S (1973) Drugs and Foods from Little-Known Plants. Notes in Harvard University Herbaria. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press [WorldCat] [doi] [url] [url-2]
  • von Reis S, Lipp FJ (1982) New Plant Sources for Drugs and Foods from The New York Botanical Garden Herbarium. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press [WorldCat]
  • Warren RAJ et al. (1980) Bacteriophages as indicators of the mechanism of action of photosensitizing agents. Photobiochem. Photobiophys. 1: 385.
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  • Wat C-K, MacRae WD, Yamamoto E, Towers GHN, Lam J (1980) Phototoxic effects of naturally occurring polyacetylenes and α-terthienyl on human erythrocytes. Photochemistry and Photobiology 32(2): 167-172
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  • [ + 1 further reference not yet included in database]

Richard J. Schmidt

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