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Beautifully Useless. Lobelia siphilitica, Great Blue Lobelia, Botanischer Garten der Universität Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland

How long does it take to become a 'native' of a place? even if you're useless? That's something that might have occurred to our Marvelously Blue-Purple Lobelia. It's from North America, but was already known to Europeans in the late sixteenth century. Influential Matthaeus Lobelius (1538-1616) - physician to kings: William III and James I of England - already mentions it in his Great Book of 1591; but he uses the name Trachelium americanum. He knows nothing of Trachelium's medicinal use to which the 'siphilitica', the specific of the later Lobelia, refers.

William Johnson (c.1715-1774), Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the western regions of what is now known as New York State, knew the Mohawk language and was highly knowledgable in the customs and practices of the Iroquois. He claims that the Native Americans used this Lobelia as a cure for Syphilis, endemic among those nations. Peter Kalm (1716-1779) - who wrote the first scientific description of Niagara Falls - was an early student of great Carolus Linnaeus, and he kept in touch with his master. Linnaeus bases about 100 of his descriptions on Kalm's work. Among these is what he calls Lobelia siphilitica. Europeans were hot for a cure from that malady, of course. In fact, it was soon shown not to work at all and to be of no medicinal uses. Regardless, it maintains today the name Linnaeus assigned to it. It's uselessly beautiful; been so since at least 1591, and it spread all over Europe in those five centuries since then.

So: has it become a native? Does it matter if it's useless?

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Taken on August 27, 2012