The name ‘lobelia’ commemorates Matthias de L’Obel, 1538-1616, botanist and physician to King James I of England (Photo: Girija Viraraghavan)

Spikes in Your Garden: Meet the Striking Lobelia leschenaultiana

One very striking native plant for a landscape is our local lobelia, which has a statuesque beauty, with tall spire-like spikes, standing out among the other lower growing plants. It is a good feature in a hill garden, as the eye will be immediately engaged by its elegance.

This is Lobelia leschenaultiana, an endemic shola plant named after the French botanist Leschenault de la Tour in the early 19th century when he botanised in these areas.

Lobelias belong to the botanical plant family Campanulaceae, and this genus comprises about  200 species of annuals, herbaceous perennials and subshrubs, some dwarf and compact, some larger and spreading, widely distributed over temperate and tropical regions of the world. They come in a range of red and blue colors. The flowers are basically tubular, flattening out to a broad 3-5 lobed tip.

The Indian white-eye bird looking for a meal in the Lobelia leschenaultiana (Photo: Lekshmi R)
Creeping Lobelia or Lobelia erinus trailing in the author’s garden (Photo: Girija Viraraghavan)

The name ‘lobelia’ commemorates Matthias de L’Obel, 1538-1616, botanist and physician to King James I of England.  We have some of the creeping or trailing lobelias in our hill gardens in shades of bright blue. I have seen them planted in crevices between steps in a garden and they look charming. Usually they are a clear, bright, practically incandescent blue. Many are grown in hanging baskets and when in bloom are a mass of flowers.

But our local lobelia, L. leschenaultiana, earlier called Lobelia excelsa, is a tall, erect, un-branched subshrub with terminal spikes that have dense purplish brown flowers throughout the year. It is locally abundant, seen by waysides, from 1750-2200 meters elevation. Though fairly common it makes an arresting sight, especially when you, as you often do, come upon a clump of these spikes, and see them in silhouette. Called Giant Lobelias, our representative has many relations all across the globe, especially in S. Africa.

When one travels down our hills we come across another lobelia representative L. nicotianifolia, which has loosely-packed, branched spikes and larger white flowers. You usually see this version on bare hillside slopes and it is the low altitude replacement for L. leschenaultiana. As its name suggests, the popular name is Indian Tobacco Weed. Lobelias have medicinal properties and are used especially in native medicines of Mexico and S. America. 

In Western horticulture, many hybrids of the trailing and smaller spiked lobelias have been bred because, whether as annuals or perennials, they are a good addition to herbaceous borders, pots and hanging baskets. They come mostly in shades of bright red or blue, many with dark bronze foliage so they add color and cheer to the garden. Since most come up easily from seeds and are just as easy to grow and maintain, it is worth your while to get a few packets of lobelia seeds and sprout them—apart from planting one of our endemic lobelias, locally found.

Lobelia leschenaultiana, endemic to the shola forests, in bloom
(Photo: Lekshmi R)

Girija Viraraghavan

Girija Viraraghavan breeds internationally renowned roses, rhododendrons, and other plants with her husband, Viru. She is a founder member of the Palani Hills Conservation Council (PHCC), and was its secretary for many years. The author of many articles on roses for national and international journals, she is also one of the editors of, and contributor to, Kodaikanal-Vanishing Heritage of an Island in the Sky. She has resided in Kodai for 40 years, and lives on Fern Hill Road.

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