Michael Tierra L.Ac, O.M.D., A.H.G., June 2007

Nicotiana Rustica

Nicotiana Tobacum



Nicotiana rustica is the species of tobacco that is native to North America, unlike the larger leaved, highly commercialized variety, Nicotiana tobacum. N. Rustica also has the distinction of being universally regarded by both North and South American natives as the most sacred of all herbs.

It is used for ceremony, prayer, communing with the Great Spirit, and miscellaneous but relatively minor medicinal uses.

I first encountered it when I was returning from a Salmon fishing spree with my Karok friends, Willis Conrad and his sidekick, Hambone.

It was growing along the banks of the junction of the Salmon and Klamath rivers in the mountains of Northern California.

My Native American friends didn t want to admit it, but I had known from previous discussions that they and most Karoks had forgotten what this herb looked like, despite its sacred and cultural importance as their only cultivated plant.

Traditionally, the Karok method involved a designated tobacco grower who would burn a small secret clearing in the woods and scatter the wild tobacco seeds, presumably in the winter, to be harvested in the spring of the following year.

Then, individuals from the tribe would present their finely woven grass caps to be filled with dried tobacco in exchange for some dentalium shells, which was their form of currency.

It was a somewhat diminutive native tobacco plant that I first identified that day in the spring of 1970, and when I realized that I had found the Karok’s most sacred herb, I excitedly showed it to my two friends.

With their pockets bulging with commercial cigarettes, they did not seem very impressed.

Like the natives of the Southeast and throughout North America, they, along with virtually all smokers, had succumbed to the convenience lure of chemically laden, commercialized tobacco, which has over 600 added chemicals many of which contribute to their addiction.

[1] Tobacco was the first and most important crop exported to Europe, and ultimately throughout the world.

It gave rise to a violent and brutal history, involving its cultivation and its contribution to the rise of slavery in the South.

At first the colonists tried to persuade and eventually to force the Southeastern natives to cultivate the native species of N. Rustica and then N. Tobacum. The problem was that these people, at home in their native lands, did not take well to slavery and would disappear into their forests.

This was inevitably followed by forced importation of Negroes from Africa for the Southeastern slave trade.

Appalachian herbalist Phyllis Light sums up the following, regarding tobacco: According to Lain Gately author of Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization, both Nicotiana rustica and Nicotiana tabacum originated in the Peruvian/Ecuadorean Andes and spread northward from there, including the offshore islands of Cuba.

Nicotiana tabacum has broader leaves and is taller than rustica, which made it a better plant for harvesting and commerce.

Gerard’s Herbal of 1636 called tobacco henbane of Peru .

Other interesting tidbits from the book:

1. There are 16 species of Nicotiana native to Australia and used by the Aboriginals.

2. Jamestown survived by growing Nicotiana tabacum for the English market.

3. The first African slaves in the South were bought from the Dutch in 1619 and taken to Jamestown to work the tobacco fields.

4. In 1619, John Rolfe introduced the concept of brands with Orinoco, which had a light and delicate fragrance, burned evenly, and was sweet and lacking in harshness.

He borrowed the curing practice from Native Americans.

Native Americans harvested the leaves, one at a time and wrapped them in bracken ferns.

Curing consisted of alternating periods in sweat lodges and sunshine.

In the autumn, they were laid outside every morning to absorb the dew.

The seedpods were saved, tied in small bunches and hung in the houses over the winter.

In the spring they were crushed and the seeds were scattered.

A recent issue of National Geographic [2] contained an article centering around two centuries-old tobacco seeds discovered in Jamestown, Virginia.

The importance of the Jamestown colony settlement was based on the cultivation and export of tobacco for the likes of Sir Walter Raleigh and similar European upper crust.

The article described how this was done: A new arrival in 1610 was John Rolfe, the first person to experiment with non-native tobacco crops in the colony.

Rolfe somehow got hold of seeds for a species of tobacco that Spanish colonists obtained from South America and the Caribbean.

The leaves from this tobacco plant were considered so desirable and therefore so valuable that Spain imposed the death penalty for anyone selling the seeds outside its colonies.

Historians aren’t sure how Rolfe obtained the Spanish seeds, but what experts do know is that after Jamestown’s shaky start, tobacco became the colony’s main cash crop and helped make Jamestown England’s first permanent settlement in the New World.

The discovery of the tobacco seeds therefore provides an important link to one of the country’s greatest assets.

This was the beginning of the family farm, and that’s been the strength of this country forever.

While these colonists first tried to persuade the native people to cultivate N. rusticana, the Native people were not all that reliable.

With the introduction of seeds from Hispaniola and South America, illegally obtained from Spanish sources, the larger leaved N. tobacum began to be widely cultivated.

This eventually led to the forced abduction and importation of Negroes from Africa to Virginia and other Southern states, where they were brutally conscripted to cultivate tobacco for the pleasurable indulgence and deadly addiction of people throughout the world.

From sacred to most deadly herb, the history of tobacco begins with the desecration of a people and their culture and leads to the present, with the misery of untold millions of people throughout the world  people who have desperately tried to quit smoking, many of whom suffer from chronic upper respiratory complaints and the very real threat of lung cancer.

Tobacco smoking is responsible for the death of approximately 100 million people, which is far more than the 60 million soldiers and civilians who died in World War II and the 20 million who died in World War I, making smoking tobacco the greatest health scourge of humanity[3].

In fact, I have frequently used this as a motivational story to those who are trying to stop smoking.

It is the two-fold curse of tobacco, that it is not only symbolically associated with the usurpation of the lands and near genocide of North American Natives, but that the use of it still persists throughout the world today, along with its legacy of upper respiratory misery and suffering.

Why is quitting tobacco smoking so difficult? Indeed, for many, it is the most difficult addiction to break.

One reason is that it only takes 8 seconds after smoking for tobacco molecules to reach the brain.

These, in turn, contact neurotransmitters, which stimulate dopamine in the brain, giving a short-lived sense of peaceful euphoria  and who would not want to experience that throughout trying moments of a day? [4] It is interesting to note that true tobacco addiction coincided with the invention of convenient quick strike matches in the early 20th century.

Then, addictions increased through a massive advertising campaign that overcame the taboo of women smoking.

Eventually, this tendency continued and, fueled by the media, the tobacco industry found new and increasing ways to snare the young into the deadly habit of smoking as soon as they were able.

For over 6,000 years, people have smoked or chewed the leaves of the tobacco plant.

It was first found and cultivated in the Americas, perhaps as early as 6,000 B.C. Following the discovery and colonization of North and South America, the tobacco plant was exported widely, to Europe and the rest of the civilized world.

Even in its early days, tobacco use was controversial.

In England there is an Elizabethan lute song by composer, Tobias Hume that, were not for its cultural prescience, would make a great ad for modern tobacco manufacturers, entitled “Tobacco is like love.”

Tobacco, Tobacco, Sing sweetly for tobacco, tobacco is like love, O love it, etc.
Some extolled its medicinal properties. From its inception, tobacco was thought to be protective against the ravages of the Plague! However, since as early as the 1600’s, there was speculation that there could be a link between tobacco smoking and upper respiratory diseases, as well as cancer. Since 1500 there have been many who regarded tobacco as a powerful medicinal herb with near panacea properties. Pedro Alvarez Cabral in Brazil reported using the herb for ulcerated abscesses, fistulas, sores, inveterate polyps and many other ailments. [i]Spanish missionaries recorded that breathing the odor of the fresh green leaves of the plant relieved persistent headaches, and that rubbing the leaves around the inside of the mouth relieved symptoms of colds and catarrh. Crushed, steamed tobacco leaves mixed with salt were used to treat swollen glands, by applying them directly over the affected area.[ii] In 1934 Fernando Ocaranza summed up the medicinal uses of tobacco in Mexico before the year 1519 as antidiarrheal, narcotic and emollient; he said that tobacco leaves were applied for the relief of pain, used in powdered form for the relief of catarrh and applied locally to heal wounds and burns.[iii] The wide range of usage, including conditions ranging from the relief of pain to the external treatment of parasites, such as lice and ringworm, was impressive enough to warrant travelers to take the plants and seeds back to Europe. My Italian father, who was a smoker, used to blow tobacco smoke in my ear to relieve earache which it did. Then I came across John Wesley’s Primitive Physick, first published in 1747, which recommended tobacco for earache ( blow the smoke of tobacco strongly into it ) as well as for falling sickness, and for piles ( apply a tobacco leaf steeped in water twenty-four hours ). Tobacco indeed still has many powerful medicinal uses, especially when applied externally.[iv] Following is a list of successful uses of tobacco as identified by researcher G. G. Stewart:
Bites of poisonous reptiles and insects; hysteria; pain, neuralgia; laryngeal spasm; gout; growth of hair; tetanus; ringworm ; rodent ulcer; ulcers; wounds; respiratory stimulant Tobacco administered by rectum: Constipation; haemorrhoidal bleeding Tobacco administered by mouth: Strangulated hernia (smoke by mouth); malaria or intermittent fever; dislodging obstructive material from oesophagus by inducing vomiting Tobacco administered by inhalation: Nasal polyps. [v]

I would add to this, from personal experience, the relief (and possible cure) of earache. In conclusion, tobacco is just a plant with an extraordinary history of use. It is steeped with a history of sacred reverence in the Native American Pipe ritual, when smoking tobacco would brace and clear the mind as the smoke was believed to carry one’s prayers to the Great Spirit. In addition, is had a wide variety of uses for physical complaints, such as venomous bites and stings, internal and external parasites, and the symptomatic relief of pain, which justifies its wide use and appreciation by Native American and European peoples. As we release our addiction to, and dependence on smoking tobacco, let us not forget its many practical medicinal uses.


[1] http://www.ash.org.uk/html/regulation/html/additives.html
[3] . http://www.cancerdecisions.com/051307.html


[i] Dickson SA. Panacea or Precious Bane. Tobacco in 16th Century Literature. New York: New York Public Library,1954
[ii] Brookes JE. The Mighty Leaf: Tobacco Through the Centuries. Boston: Little, Brown, 1952
[iii] Dickson SA. Panacea or Precious Bane. Tobacco in 16th Century Literature. New York: New York Public Library,1954
[iv] http://www.jrsm.org/cgi/content/full/97/6/292#REF13
[v] Stewart GG. A history of the medicinal use of tobacco 1492-1860. Med Hist1967; 11:228 -68[Medline]

[1] Dickson SA. Panacea or Precious Bane. Tobacco in 16th Century Literature. New York: New York Public Library,1954 [1] Brookes JE. The Mighty Leaf: Tobacco Through the Centuries. Boston: Little, Brown, 1952 [1] Dickson SA. Panacea or Precious Bane. Tobacco in 16th Century Literature. New York: New York Public Library,1954 [1] http://www.jrsm.org/cgi/content/full/97/6/292#REF13 [1] Stewart GG. A history of the medicinal use of tobacco 1492-1860. Med Hist1967; 11:228 -68[Medline]

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