Tobacco: The Most Provocative Herb

| October/November 1994

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).

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