Tobacco: The Most Provocative Herb


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When Columbus landed in the West Indies in October 1492, the native Arawak people greeted his party with a gift of dried tobacco leaves and a demonstration of how to roll them into a cigar and smoke it. It was a well-meant gesture: throughout Native American cultures, sharing tobacco was a universal expression of peace and good will. But here we are, five hundred years later, passionately debating the consequences of that hospitality.

Different cultures have different perspectives. Throughout the New World, smoking tobacco was esteemed as a way to communicate with the gods, facilitate social interaction, and develop individual fortitude. When the custom was introduced to Europe, though, smoking was first touted as a panacea, then cursed as a vice (although the criticism toned down as soon as governments identified tobacco as an indispensable source of tax revenues), and finally embraced as a means of relaxation and recreation. Now it’s indicted as a menacing health hazard.

Has any other herb generated such contradictory attitudes? There’s something so provocative about tobacco that its history includes far more than dates and statistics. It’s a veritable drama about good and evil, with subplots on virtue and sin, remedies and diseases, and fashion and folly. The cast features two plants, both called tobacco—Nicotiana rustica and N. tabacum—and that notorious character, Homo sapiens.

Tobacco in the New World

The tobacco offered to Columbus was N. rustica, a species that was domesticated at least two thousand years ago and perhaps much earlier. By 1492, it was cultivated throughout the areas now known as the West Indies, Mexico, the southwestern and eastern United States, and eastern Canada. This was the first tobacco introduced to Europe, though it’s of minor importance today. In the early 1500s, Spanish explorers found natives in the Yucatán, Guatemala, Venezuela, and Brazil growing and smoking or chewing the leaves of a second species of tobacco, N. tabacum. This is the tobacco that eventually swept around the world.

Both N. rustica and N. tabacum are annuals that make a single upright stem bearing a dozen or more large, oblong leaves with a brittle texture and sticky surface, like that of petunia leaves. In late summer, the stem is topped with a branched cluster of many small, five-petaled flowers, followed by pea-sized pods that ripen, turn brown and dry, then release thousands of tiny seeds. N. rustica plants usually grow 2 to 4 feet tall and have yellow flowers. N. tabacum plants reach 4 to 8 feet tall and have pink flowers.

The main difference between the two species is the nicotine content. Dried leaves of N. rustica contain as much as 9 percent nicotine. Those of N. tabacum yield 1 to 3 percent nicotine. Nicotine, an alkaloid, is the active ingredient in tobacco, so the more nicotine, the more potent the tobacco. In fact, N. rustica contains so much nicotine that Indians often diluted the tobacco with relatively inert ingredients called kinikinik, which included the dried leaves of bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) or the inner bark of the red osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera).

The diaries of early explorers in eastern North America contain many references to the effects of smoking N. rustica, reporting that it induced giddiness and intoxication and caused visions, but also reduced hunger, increased stamina, and was considered very healthful. As Thomas Harriot wrote in 1590 in his Briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia,

There is an herbe which is sowed a part by it selfe & is called by the inhabitants Uppowoc. In the West Indies it hath divers names, according to the severall places & countries where it groweth and is used: The Spaniards generally call it Tobacco. The leaves thereof being dried and brought into powder: they use to take the fume or smoke thereof by sucking it through pipes made of claie into their stomache and heade; from whence it purgeth superflous fleame & other grosse humors, openeth all the pores & passages of the body, and preserveth the body from obstructions; . . . whereby their bodies are notably preserved in health, & know not many greevous diseases wherewithall wee in England are oftentimes afflicted. This Uppowoc is of so precious estimation amongst them, that they thinke their gods are marvelously delighted therewith.

Similarly, Edmund Gardiner, in The Triall of Tabacco (1611), quotes an explorer who observed the use of N. tabacum in Brazil:

Andrew Thevet saith, that the Americans have a secret herbe which they name in their language Petun, the which most commonly they beare about them, for that they esteeme it marveilous profitable for many things. . . . They gather this herbe very charily, and drie it within their little cabanes or houses. Their manner to use it is this: they wrap a quantitie of this herbe being drie, in a leafe of a Palme-tree which is very great, & so they make rolles of the length of a candle, and then they fire the one end, and receive the smoak thereof by their nose, and by their mouth: they say it is verie wholesome to cleanse and consume the superfluous humors of the braine. Moreover, being taken after this sort, it keepeth the parties from hunger and thirst for a time, therefore they use it ordinarily. Also when they have any secret talke or counsell among themselves, they draw this smoake, and then they speake.

Tobacco in Europe

Columbus and other explorers took tobacco back to Europe, but it didn’t catch on right away. At first, the plants were grown as curiosities. Gardiner reported, “It was brought . . . into Spaine, rather for the decking up of their gardens, as being a strange plant and seld seen, more than for the hidden vertues of the hearbe.”

Growing tobacco is as easy as (and very similar to) growing tomatoes, but picking, curing, and processing its leaves required knowledge and experience that the Europeans didn’t yet have. Because it had to be imported from the New World, ready-to-smoke tobacco was scarce and expensive—worth its weight in silver—in the early 1500s.

By midcentury, smoking was still uncommon, but public awareness of tobacco increased as a few enthusiasts began promoting it as a heaven-sent cure-all. (One of these early promoters was Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Portugal; his association with the plant is commemorated in the generic name Nicotiana and the word nicotine.) Gardiner emphasized tobacco’s medicinal qualities in The Triall of Tabacco, which is subtitled The true use of taking that excellent Hearbe Tabacco. “Wee know indeed by practise,” he wrote, “that an infinite number of diseases are cured by Tabacco, from the crowne of the head to the verie feete.” He gave a series of prescriptions for using the heated leaves to treat “paines of the head”; drinking the juice, which “purgeth upwards and downewards, and procureth after a long and sound sleep”; dipping a flannel cloth in tobacco juice to clean and scour the teeth and prevent tooth decay; inhaling the smoke to wash, purge, and clear the brain of all corruption and filthiness; and using the juice of bruised leaves to cleanse and heal ulcers, sores, mortifications, and gangrenes. Finally getting to the “verie feete”, he claimed that wrapping an injured foot in a linen cloth soaked with tobacco juice would restore lost toenails. Tobacco juice had veterinary value, too, and was recommended for treating “rotten, stinking, and such corrupt soares of beastes as were full of crawling wormes.”

You’d think that crowds would stampede for an herb with so many virtues, but tobacco’s popularity didn’t soar until 1586, when Sir Francis Drake returned to England with a supply of tobacco from the West Indies and pipes to smoke it in. Although it was an expensive habit, pipe smoking soon became very fashionable in England. Dandy young men would strut down the street, performing smoke-blowing tricks with fancy names like the “Gulpe” and the “Retentión”. It was fashion, not herbal benefits, that suddenly made tobacco smoking so attractive. But unlike fashions that come and go, the addictive nature of nicotine established this one as a lifelong habit for most users.

Controversy and Commerce

The smoking revolution generated a flurry of pamphleteering in England in the early 1600s. One author would praise tobacco, then another would condemn it, with a fervor unmatched until recent years. (Several of these pamphlets are available as facsimiles or on microfilm at university libraries. Although it takes a while to get used to the old-fashioned typography and spelling, they make fascinating reading.)

Several of the manifestos questioned the benefits of smoking tobacco, though sometimes with a hint of apology. Gardiner himself acknowledged that the first use thereof is not without danger, before that one be accustomed therto: for this smoke causeth sweats and weakenes, yea, foaming at the mouth, suddaine falling downe, and convulsions, as I have seene in some. But this is no strange thing as it seemeth, for there are many other herbs and fruits that offend the braine, though that the taste of them bee pleasant and good to eate.

He also noted that there are found divers populous nations in farre differing clymates, that live for the most part upon filthy and loathsome poysonous spiders as also of grashoppers, pisse­mires, lyzards, and night-bars. . . . I should judge that tabacco were good for these kinde of people.

A major argument was based on financial and nationalist grounds. The growing population of addicted smokers constituted a big market for tobacco, and in the early 1600s,almost all of the tobacco coming into England was imported from the New World by Spanish merchants. This led C.T. London in 1615 to publish An advice how to plant tobacco in England, and the danger of the Spanish tobacco. “I have heard it reported,” he began, “that there is paid out of England and Ireland, neere the value of two hundred thousand pounds every yeare for Tobacco.” He was outraged that this money was going to Spain, and worse yet, that the vile Spanish merchants were selling adulterated tobacco.

The blacke color which it hath . . . is artificiall: all the tobacco . . . is anoynted and slubbered over with a kinde of juice or syroope, made of saltwater, of the dregges or filth of sugar, called malasses, of blacke honey, Guiana pepper, and leeze of wine; to which in some places they adde a red berry called anotto. . . . This they do to give it colour and glosse, to make it the more merchantable, and to give one and the same countenance to all their rotten, withered, and ground leaves, which they wrappe up in the midle of their wreathes, covering them over on the outside with one that is good.

London advocated domestic production as a way to save the Treasury and protect Englishmen from Spanish iniquity, and went on to give full directions for planting, tending, and harvesting both N. rustica and N. tabacum. He distinguished these as two types, “male” and “female”, and thought that the “female” (N. tabacum) would be more profitable to the planters because its larger leaves were easier to pick and process, but said that the “male” (N. rustica) was a stronger plant and “subject to lesse hazard”. Regarding smoking, London took an intermediate position. He described many benefits but refuted others, and ended up prescribing it as a remedy for the aged and infirm but the downfall of the young and healthy.

The most famous of all the antitobacco pamphlets was written by King James I. In A Counterblaste to Tobacco (1604), he despised smoking as a savage custom unbecoming to Englishmen, asking, “What honour or policie can moove us to imitate the barbarous and beastly maners of the wild, godlesse, and slavish Indians, especially in so vile and stinking a custome?” He refuted the alleged medicinal properties of tobacco, exclaiming, “What greater absurditie can there bee, than to say that one cure shall serve for divers, nay contrarious sortes of diseases?” He condemned addiction to tobacco as “a branche of the sinne of drunkennesse, which is the roote of all sinnes” and avowed that “To take a custome in any thing that cannot bee left again, is most harmefull to the people of any land.” King James I saw smoking as a waste of money, a sign of idleness, a slavish compliance with fashion, a stinking torment, and a filthy novelty.

Despite these protests, the popularity of smoking gained an irreversible momentum. In 1612, John Rolfe started raising N. tabacum on plantations in Jamestown, Virginia (named for James I—ironic given the king’s feelings on tobacco). Rolfe found success with the first harvest. In 1619, a crop of 20,000 pounds of dried “Virginia leaf” was exported to England; by 1622, the trade was up to 60,000 pounds a year. Plantations of the relatively mild species were started in other parts of Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky, and the harsher N. rustica fell out of favor. With an ever-increasing supply of affordable, good-quality tobacco, smoking became the status quo. King James I swallowed his aversion and started counting his tax revenue, and the publication of pamphlets ceased. The tobacco habit spread around the world. At first, pipe smoking was the most popular way of using tobacco. Later, tobacco was taken as snuff, chewed, and smoked in cigars. Cigarettes were introduced in the 1800s, and the first cigarette factory was built in 1856. Now cigarettes are by far the most common tobacco product.

From the early 1600s until recent decades, tobacco had few detractors. Although she cited the risk of nicotine poisoning, Maud Grieve described several medicinal uses for tobacco in her compendium, A Modern Herbal (1931). Lung cancer, historically a rare condition, wasn’t officially recognized until 1930, and the cause-and-effect relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer wasn’t reported until 1957. Restrictions on cigarette advertising and smoking in public places weren’t introduced until the 1970s and 1980s, and still haven’t spread far beyond the United States.

Today’s antismoking movement is an uprising after centuries of tolerance, but history repeats itself. The arguments we hear now are nothing new. King James I gave smoking the ultimate put-down back in 1604. His Counterblaste called it “a custom lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.

Rita Buchanan has grown both N. rustica and N. tabacum over the years, more for the decking up of her garden than for their hidden virtues, but she sometimes makes a brew of N. rustica leaves to counterblast aphids and whiteflies.