The wild tobacco is an aromatic, annual herb. It is tall, vertical, greatly branched and to a certain extent a hairy herb. Wild tobacco is susceptible to frosts and needs to be grown with care. Normally, the plant grows to a height of three to six feet (about 1.0 to 1.8 meters) and has a thick erect stem that branches out at the top. This plant is also known as Sacred Tobacco and is native to Mexico. However, it has spread to different parts of North America and is now grown by the indigenous people of the region for ceremonial or traditional functions.
The leaves of this herb have a resemblance to those of the tobacco and are intently ovate shaped. While the leaves at the lower end of the stem usually measure around 30 cm X 5 cm, they become gradually smaller at the top. The wild tobacco plant bears plentiful flowers that are comparatively large, funnel-shaped and usually have a pink hue. Sometimes, flowers blooming at the top of the plant are yellowish in color and are borne in terminal racemes that are 30 cm to 50 cm long. The wild tobacco plant blooms during the period between July and September and are 3 cm to 4 cm long and two-lipped. The flowers of this variety of herb are hermaphrodite in nature, possessing both male and female organs. The flowers of wild tobacco are pollinated by Lepidoptera - moths and butterflies. Wild tobacco is propagated through its seeds.
Wild tobacco plants grow robustly and are somewhat tough. As these plants bear abundance of yellow flowers throughout the day, they make an attractive annual garden plant. Presently, this plant is grown commercially across the globe for producing nicotine that is smoked by millions all over the world. Nicotine is said to be extremely potent and long back indigenous people in Mexico used the substance to poison their arrow heads. In fact, all parts of this plant are poisonous if ingested.
This plant thrives best in full sunlight and prefers a light or sandy, medium or loamy and heavy clay soils. The plant requires average watering and a well-drained soil. In other words, the wild tobacco plant prefers a moist soil. In addition, the wild tobacco plant has a preference for acidic, neutral and basic or alkaline soils. Precisely speaking, the plant grows best in soil having a pH range between 6.1 and 6.5 (mildly acidic) as well as in pH range between 7.6 and 7.8 (mildly alkaline). As mentioned earlier, the plant requires full sunlight and cannot grow in shade or partial shade.
The various characteristics of the wild tobacco include emetic, narcotic, antispasmodic and sedative.
There is documentation of the fact that the indigenous people of the Mayan civilization were used to inhaling tobacco smoke as long back as 2,000 years. It is said that when Christopher Columbus happened upon the Arawak of the Caribbean Islands way back in 1492, he found them smoking loosely rolled cigars. On the other hand, the Karok of California gifted tobacco to spirits for favors or get rid of evils as well as gave them to guests of lower standing. Interestingly enough, among the Karok Indians only men had the privilege to smoke tobacco, with the women doctors being the sole exception. Women who practiced medicine were considered to be performing a task generally performed by men in those days and, hence, were permitted to smoke tobacco like their male counterparts.
It has been recorded that John Rolfe, husband of Pocahontas, was the first European settler in North America to cultivate the tobacco crop. Soon after tobacco was brought in Spain, people rolled them in the form of cigars - cylindrical article with a small lump in the middle - and smoked them. These cylindrical objects had a resemblance to cicadas and, hence, the Spanish people called them cigarro. Much later, the French renamed the objects as cigarette and this name continues till date. It may be mentioned here that presently tobacco is the most extensively cultivated non-food plant all over the world.
Tobacco was used for remedial purposes since long. In fact, several Native Americans prepared poultice with fresh wild tobacco leaves and used it externally to alleviate pain. In addition, these people also dried the wild tobacco leaves and smoked them as a remedy for colds. Right from the time tobacco was introduced in Europe; people there too had considerable faith on the remedial properties of the plant. Jean Nicot, the then French ambassador to Portugal, from whose name the term ‘nicotine' has been derived, believed that tobacco was an effective medication to treat headaches and gout. A Spanish medical practitioner called Nicholas Monardes documented as many as 36 different ailments that could be cured with tobacco. It was much later, in 1761 that John Hill of England confirmed that taking snuff, prepared from tobacco, caused cancer in the nose. And today, it has been established that tobacco is associated with different forms of cancer.
It is important to note that all parts of the wild tobacco plant enclose nicotine that is a potent narcotic. The leaves of this herb possess antispasmodic (alleviating spasms), emetic (laxative), cathartic (purgative), narcotic (analgesic) and sedative properties. The leaves of the wild tobacco plant are usually used externally in the form of poultice as well as a wash to treat rheumatic or painful swelling, skin disorders as well as scorpion stings.
As discussed earlier, all parts of the wild tobacco plant encloses nicotine that is highly poisonous when ingested. The nicotine extracted from the wild tobacco plant forms an important ingredient in many insecticides. Even the dried leaves of the plants may be used as pesticides and these leaves remain effective for as many as six months after they are dried in sunlight. Many people chew the dried leaves as a stimulant, while others smoke or take for snuffing. Compared to N. tabacum, the species usually grown commercially for manufacturing cigarettes, the wild tobacco plant is considered to be more potent.
Habitat and cultivation
The wild tobacco plant has its origin in Mexico and is presently being cultivated across the globe. Young wild tobacco plants are grown is beds and they have a preference for well-drained moist soil, including light sandy soil, medium/ loamy as well as heavy clay soils. Initially, this plant was extensively cultivated for its use as an effective insecticide, but now this species has been substituted by N. tabacum, whose leaves are used to manufacture cigarettes. The wild tobacco plant thrives well in full sunlight and requires a minimum of 14 hours and more of sunlight every day so that they may start blossoming.
Wild tobacco is propagated by its seeds. The seeds need to be sown in a humid greenhouse around 10 weeks prior to the very last expected spring frosts. Generally, the seeds begin to germinate within ten to twenty days of sowing when they are kept in 20° C. It is important to keep the soil moist. So, water the young plants regularly, but avoid over-watering and ensure that the drainage system is perfect. The plants should be pricked from their place individually and placed in separate pots when they have grown enough to be coping with. As the wild tobacco is prone to frosts, the plants should be put in their permanent position outdoors after the final anticipated frosts.