About The Plant
Tobacco belongs to the nightshade family of plants, and are wildly varied. Some, like potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, and some peppers, are common food items for humans, while others, like petunias, are ornamental.
Nightshade plants contain high levels of alkaloids. In nature, these alkaloids work as a pesticide, and are a natural defense against being eaten. The nicotine in tobacco is an alkaloid. Alkaloids can also be toxic or deadly to humans.
Although there are many types of tobacco plant out there, only two types are used commercially to produce tobacco products like cigarettes and cigars. Nicotiana Tabacum is the most commonly used one, but Nicotiana Rustica is harvested is well. Many different varieties of tobacco used for human consumption have been cultivated since it became a domesticated crop. Currently, tobacco is the most widely produced non-food crop in the world.
Tobacco is native to North America, although other plants in genus Nicotiana grow elsewhere in the world and have also been used by humans. One type grows wild in Australia and was commonly consumed by the aboriginal population until introduction of tobacco as we know it today by colonists.
A Brief History of Tobacco
Scientists have recently found a fossil containing tobacco that is 2.5 million years ago in northeastern Peru. The plant grew wild throughout the Americas, and it is believed that it was first cultivated and domesticated several thousand years ago. Wild strains made their way naturally from South America to North America, and the domesticated versions were present in the Southwest by around 1000-1400 B.C.
Tobacco was considered sacred to the ancient peoples that lived in both South and North America. It was often included in ceremonies and it’s use at that time was often for the narcotic effect that could be achieved. Imbibing tobacco, sometimes mixed with other substances, could create profound psychological effects, such as hallucination and going into a trance. Practical applications for it have also been recorded; tobacco smoke and juice were used as insecticides on other plants and were also rubbed on the skin to keep bugs away, and a host of medicinal qualities were attributed to it by the native populace.
Although tobacco was smoked by ancient Native Americans, they also ingested it by mixing with liquids and drinking it, chewing, grinding and snorting it through the nose, and even by preparing and using enemas laced with it.
Tobacco leaves were one of the gifts given to Colombus in 1492 when he reached the New World, although their value was unknown to him. It did not take long for tobacco use to spread among Europeans. A man by the name of Rodrigo de Jerez sailed with Columbus on this same voyage, and in November of 1492, saw the natives smoking the same strange leaves that had been gifted. From them, he learned the art of smoking tobacco, and brought it back to Spain. His smoke exhalations frightened everyone, as they believed only the devil could blow smoke from his mouth, and the Spanish Inquisition captured and held him for seven years.
By 1531 Europeans began actively farming tobacco plants in Santo Domingo. The n tabacum plant used most widely today was brought to Santo Domingo and Cuba for cultivation.
In 1556, tobacco was brought to France for cultivation. Quickly, use spread throughout all of Europe, to notoriously mixed reviews. Catherine de Medici, Queen of France, was given tobacco to cure migraines in 1561. The supposed medicinal properties of tobacco were touted wide and far, and popularity skyrocketed in Spain. In England, sailors were smoking tobacco, but it was not used by most of the populace. By 1573, the n tabacum plant was brought in from the Americas by Sir Francis Drake.
Throughout the 1580s, England had officially staked claim on the North American colonies. The first governor of Virginia is credited with inventing the clay pipe, and this was introduced to society in 1586 when some of the Virginian settlers came back to England. Tobacco cultivation in the following years began to skyrocket, and the American tobacco trade was established, with the first American crop sold to England in 1614.
Tobacco becomes the cash crop for early European settlers. By 1619, tobacco was currency, and the Colonies thrived and boomed with tobacco commerce.
Restrictions on tobacco growers helped fuel the Revolutionary War, but the proceeds from tobacco sales also helped to fund it. In the coming centuries, tobacco use spread across the U.S. as quickly as the settlers did, and tobacco remained a great source of income to the nation.
Modern Day Tobacco
Modern use of tobacco is far away from it’s ancient roots. With the advent of cigarette machines, the public had fast, easy access to what was once considered a potent drug of the gods. Despite the well documented health concerns related to tobacco use, it’s popularity has yet to wane.