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Tobacco: The Nasty Weed

By Audrey Stallsmith

nicotiana rustica

The Indian weed, withered quite;
Green at morn, cut down at night;
Shows thy decay: all flesh is hay
This think, then drink Tobacco.

Anonymous English Ballad

As a Sunday-School child, I was taught to chant, "Tobacco is a nasty weed, and from the devil it doth proceed. It robs your pockets, stinks your clothes, and makes a smokestack out of your nose." This early, if somewhat primitive, version of the "just-say-no" program must have had the desired effect, since I remain a non-smoker!

I suspect, however, that my parents, also non-smokers, deserve most of the credit for that. My grandmother was so averse to tobacco that she would even weed the ornamental type out of flower seed mixes.

Not being inclined to blame plants for the strange uses that people make of them, I enjoy growing the decorative varieties of nicotiana myself. One large, white-flowered specimen returns every year to the sheltered corner southeast of our front porch steps.

In July and August, when the windows are open, its jasmine-like scent sweetens our long summer evenings. In her poem, "There at Dusk I Found You," Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote of the "dumb white nicotine" which "wakes and utters her fragrance in a garden sleeping.

Having thus discovered that even this plant has its benefits as well as its drawbacks, I am reluctant to describe it as "nasty." Besides, whether or not we like the fact, American history--like a smoker's clothes--is permeated with the smell of tobacco.

It is an entirely New World herb, being unknown in Europe before Columbus's expeditions. Native Americans had had long exposure to the plant, however. The oldest known image of a person smoking decorates a piece of Mayan pottery which dates to between 600 and 1,000 AD.

Although the "best" variety, nicotiana tabacum, was grown in South and Central America, North American Indians had their own types. Those in the east preferred nicotiana rustica, which later became known as Turkish tobacco. Tribes near the Missouri and Columbiana Rivers grew nicotiana quadrivalvis, and the western-most harvested nicotiana attenuata, otherwise known as Coyote Tobacco.

After its introduction to Europe, tobacco was commonly known there as Indian Weed or Indian Drug. Native Americans believed that "drinking smoke" warmed and invigorated the body.

When Columbus landed in the West Indies in 1492, he recorded in his journal that the inhabitants made him gifts of "fruit, wooden spears, and certain dried leaves which gave off a distinct fragrance." A later explorer, Rodrigo de Jerez, observed Cuban natives smoking leaves rolled up inside palm or maize fronds. He adopted the habit himself and, when he returned to Spain "breathing smoke," was promptly jailed by the Inquisition for seven years!

In 1560, Jean Nicot, Lord of Villemain and French ambassador to Portugal, sent some rustica plants to his queen, Catherine de Medici. (He reportedly also dispatched some snuff to cure her son's migraines the following year.) As a result, when Carolus Linnaeus assigned tobacco a genus a couple centuries later, he called it nicotiana after the aristocrat who introduced the plant to France. The common name derives from the Haitian tabaco which applied both to the smoking "tube" and the rolled leaves used to fill it.

At the beginning, the new addiction spread slowly--mostly among sailors. It wasn't until some of the American colonists returned to England, "huffing and puffing," that the rest of European society was exposed to--and either fascinated or appalled by--the practice.

Pochahontas's husband, John Rolfe, developed the variety which came to be known as Virginia Tobacco. It soon became the most demanded export from the colonies, and a widely-accepted form of currency there. When the first shipload of brides arrived from England, every eager colonist who wanted one had to hand over 120 pounds of tobacco--though technically he was paying for her passage, not for the woman herself!

At that time, tobacco was also known as "sotweed". In his book, published in 1597, Gerard preferred to call the new herb Henbane of Peru, because it resembled the European hyoscyamus niger. Both plants do, in fact, belong to the solanum family, which also includes potato, tomato, and nightshade. Members of that clan have always been viewed with suspicion, since so many of them are toxic.

Tobacco is no exception. In its purest form, nicotine is a deadly poison--once employed as an insecticide. Gerard points out its similarity to henbane, in that it "bringeth drowsinesse, troubleth the sences, and maketh a man as it were drunke by taking the fume only."

That sedating effect led to its signifying "contentment" or "I soothe you" in the Victorian Language of Flowers. The juice, when drunk, Gerard reports, "procureth afterward a long and sound sleepe." Providing, of course, that the patient did not drink too much of it--in which case he would never wake!

Although smoking seems to relieve headache and other pains, Gerard stressed that the leaves only "palliate or ease for a time, but never perform any cure absolutely." Tobacco was once added to salves also, a dangerous practice, since nicotine is all too easily absorbed through the skin. The plant is also an irritant, increasing the flow of saliva and provoking sneezes. Snuff, mixed with lard, was sometimes applied to children's chests to treat croup.

Although Gerard recommended occasional medicinal use of tobacco, he easily recognized the addictive nature of the plant. He spoke of some who "drink it (as it is termed) for wantonnesse, or rather custome, and cannot forbeare it. . .which kinde of taking is unwholesome and very dangerous."

The herbalist was not the only person of his time to have reservations about tobacco. In his "Counterblaste," King James of England described smoking as "a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fume thereof nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless." He then increased the import tax on tobacco by four thousand percent!

In 1601, Samuel Rowlands wrote, "But this same poyson, steeped Indian weede/ In head, harte, lunges do the soote and cobwebs breede. . ." In 1617, Dr. William Vaughn exaggerated a bit when he penned, "Tobacco, that outlandish weede,/ It spends the braine and spoiles the seede:/ It dulls the spirite, it dims the sight,/ It robs a woman of her right."

Despite occasional overstatements, it is obvious that people have always had a pretty good idea that tobacco was a drug and bad for them. If not, why were cigarettes so often referred to as "coffin nails?" So the outrage directed at tobacco companies these days seems a bit ridiculous--and a large abdicating of personal responsibility.

I'll close with the last verse of the ballad quoted above, to which I have taken the liberty of adding a line!

The ashes, that are left behind
May serve to put thee still in mind
That unto dust return thou must:

(And earlier than most if you)
Thus think, then drink Tobacco.

Nicotiana rustica image is from Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.